It happens to everyone. In the midst of drifting off, you’re startled by a worrisome thought. Soon enough, the thought turns into mounting anxiety, sending your mind into overdrive and your pulse racing. It feels impossible to return to normal.
Triggering this very physical reaction is a primitive “fight or flight” survival mechanism — baked into our DNA since humans were still fighting to top the food chain. Essentially, our brains evolved to flood the body with adrenaline in these moments, giving us the chemical boost needed to run from a hungry lion or defend our families from furry dangers.
Centuries later, our lifestyles have changed but our natural instincts haven’t. When the brain registers high levels of stress in moments of agony, biology still takes over, regardless of the context.
How do we rescue our bodies from this agitated state? It’s difficult, but there are a few ways to calm your mind and prepare your body for sleep. Here are three.
Deep breathing is a great pulse-slower. In this case, inhaling is less instinctive than you might think. Diaphragmatic breathing involves slowly drawing air in through your nose and mouth, letting it sink deep into the belly and filling the lungs/diaphragm to their maximum capacity.
At this point, while you may feel inclined to breathe out, it’s crucial that you hold your breath for six to 12 seconds. By doing so, and then slowly exhaling, you allow enough time for the oxygenated air to enter your bloodstream and for the carbon dioxide (produced by your body) to get out.
This process constitutes one cycle of diaphragmatic breathing. By repeating this cycle ten times, you should feel a reduction in pulse rate and sense of calm setting in.
Biologically speaking, these effects are the result of your body balancing out its sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, thereby reducing adrenaline and cortisol — enemies to the rest-seeker. But all you really need to know is that it’ll help you power down.
In winning the battle of the breath, sleepless souls still face the war of the mind. Typically it begins with a thought — a reflection on the day or vision of our future. Either way, soon enough, our consciousness gets clogged as our minds wander.
In such times, rather than fight the flow, embrace it as fertile ground for ideas and inspiration. This is not to suggest you should spend three wake-less nights in a Kerouacian haze composing your magnum opus. Rather, as an exercise in catharsis, as well as a powerful ally in the fight for sleep, commit some of your brain’s ramblings to paper.
There’s no definitive answer for how this helps. It just seems to work. Theories suggest it has to do with our fear of forgetting important information. By this logic, it makes sense that writing down your thoughts assists the mind's filing process, creating a reliable backup of information that lets the brain reboot.
Visualization lies somewhere between the above-mentioned techniques on the spectrum of escaping your mind to focusing on your thoughts. Combining both breathing and mental cataloging, visualization is a way to harness and channel the pent-up energy causing restlessness in the first place. By focusing on calm-inducing images for extended periods of time, you can eventually train your brain to enter a relaxed state.
While any vision that soothes the senses will do, experts recommend several easy-to-picture images. For starters, there’s “the unravelling ball of yarn,” which involves picturing the yarn unfurling, as the tension it represents, slowly releases.
For the less feline-inclined, try “the energetic barrier,” a dome-like structure enveloping you in a cocoon of safety from the day’s invading thoughts. It sounds a bit hokey but the technique can become a powerful psychological weapon against the machinations of negative thoughts. If imaginary protective domes don’t quite cut it, floating down a river is also recommended as an effective calming image.
Why does it work? In shaping your internal environment, visualization is thought to shift brain wave activity and, by creating a soothing distraction, draw your mind into deep, restful sleep. It’s worth noting that this technique dates as far back as ancient Greece, first appearing in Hermes Trismegistus, a sacred text attributed to Hermes, the Greek god of safe travels for whom sleep was pivotal.
-- Robin Scher