Mental Exercises for Sleep | How to Relax Your Mind and More

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

Ever tossed and turned in bed, wondering how to calm down to go to sleep? You’re not alone. In our fast-paced world, switching off the mind and surrendering to sleep can feel like an uphill battle. But what if the secret to a peaceful nightlies not just in what you do but how you think? 

In this article, we look into the realm of mental exercises for sleep and explore how to relax your mind to sleep. From the tranquil art of deep breathing to the gentle power of visualization, we provide actionable step-by-step guides to transforming your nights from restless to restorative.

How to relax your mind to sleep?

Before we dive into the transformative world of mental exercises, it’s essential to understand the core principle behind them: why relaxation is so pivotal for sleep. Just like a tree needs strong roots to grow, relaxing your mind to sleep is foundational to a restful night. 

But it’s not just about mental techniques; it’s also about sculpting the perfect sleep sanctuary. 

Creating an optimal environment is key to relaxing your mind and body for sleep. It’s like setting the stage before the main act – your body and mind harmoniously winding down. 

So, as we explore ways to help to relax and sleep, let’s remember that it’s a dance of both mind and environment.

Why is relaxation important for sleep?

Imagine your body as a finely-tuned orchestra, with each hormone and bodily function playing its part in the symphony of your daily life.

Cortisol, commonly known as the “stress hormone,” is like the conductor, keeping you alert and energized during the day. However, at night, this conductor should take a step back, allowing melatonin, the hormone that cues sleepiness, to lead (1, 2).

When stressed, our bodies are in a heightened state of alertness, releasing more cortisol, counterproductive to the calmness needed for sleep. This reaction, while useful in short-term, fight-or-flight situations, is less helpful in our modern lives, where stressors are often more psychological than physical.

Relaxation is crucial in breaking this cycle. Activities that trigger the body’s natural relaxation response can significantly reduce the release of stress hormones, slow down the heart rate, and lower breathing rates. This shift allows your body and mind to transition smoothly into sleep.

Relaxing your mind to sleep: the importance of your sleep environment

Before diving into the mental techniques to relax, ensure you get the fundamentals right: a good sleep environment.

A well-crafted sleep environment can be the difference between a restful night and a restless one. Here’s how light, temperature, and noise – the trinity of the sleep environment – play a pivotal role in your journey to dreamland.

In our busy, light-saturated world, we often underestimate the power of darkness in signaling our body it’s time to sleep.

Exposure to light, especially blue light from screens, can suppress melatonin production, the hormone that cues sleepiness. Studies have shown that sleeping with even a trace of light can lead to fragmented sleep, weight gain, and other health risks (3).

Creating your perfect sleep environment :

  • Blackout curtains: Essential for blocking external light sources.
  • Dimming lights: Gradually reducing light in the evening helps signal your body it’s time for rest.
  • Tech-free zone: Minimize screen time before bed to limit blue light exposure.

Our body’s temperature fluctuates in sync with our circadian rhythm. As night approaches, our core temperature drops, signaling it’s time to sleep (4).

Maintaining a bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 degrees Celsius) aligns with this natural dip, facilitating the sleep onset. 

A study found that warmer temperatures increase wakefulness and lighter sleep, while cooler temperatures support deeper sleep stages (5). 

Tips for a cooler sleep:

  • Adjust the thermostat: A small change can significantly enhance sleep quality.
  • Warm baths or showers: Surprisingly, warm baths or showers help lower your body temperature post-bath.
  • Breathable bedding: Opt for fabrics that help regulate body temperature.

The influence of noise on sleep is profound. 

Environmental noises, particularly from urban settings, can disrupt our sleep cycles, leading to increased time in lighter sleep stages. Nighttime noise not only affects the architecture of our sleep but also triggers stress responses, adversely impacting sleep quality (6).

Strategies for a quieter night:

  • Soundproof your space: Utilize rugs, heavy curtains, and window insulation to dampen external noise.
  • Manage appliance sounds: Ensure appliances are as quiet as possible.

Earplugs: A simple yet effective tool for blocking out unwanted noise.

Relaxation helps our bodies and minds prepare for sleep by reducing stress-related wakefulness. Ensuring your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool helps you fall asleep more easily.

Five mental exercises for sleep

Imagine a toolkit with simple, effective exercises to help sleep come naturally. Here, we suggest five mental exercises, each a key unlocking the door to a world of sweet dreams. Ready to transform your nights? Let’s explore these sleep aid techniques and turn those restless hours into peaceful, rejuvenating sleep.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing, including diaphragmatic breathing, is a conscious effort to fill your lungs and engage the diaphragm – a major muscle in the respiratory system (7).

When you practice deep breathing, you’re doing more than just filling your lungs with air; you’re sending a signal to your brain to calm down and relax.

This activates your body’s parasympathetic nervous system – the branch of our nervous system responsible for rest, digestion, restoral, and renewal – that counters the stress response.

Deep breathing has been found especially beneficial for individuals experiencing anxiety, panic, or stress, common culprits behind sleep disturbances (8).

How to relax your mind and body for sleep diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. Find comfort: Begin by sitting or lying in a comfortable position. Make sure your environment is conducive to relaxation.
  2. Hand placement: Place one hand on your upper chest and the other just below your rib cage on your belly. This will help you focus on engaging your diaphragm.
  3. Inhale deeply: Slowly breathe through your nose, feeling your belly rise. The hand on your chest should remain still, while the hand on your belly should move up with the inhalation.
  4. Exhale slowly: Tighten your stomach muscles and exhale through pursed lips, like you’re gently blowing out a candle. Feel the hand on your belly move down as you exhale.
  5. Repeat: Continue this pattern, aiming for four to six deep, slow breaths per minute. Repeat up to 10 times or as long as it feels comfortable.

4-7-8 breathing method

Developed by Dr. Andrew Weil and inspired by an ancient yoga practice called pranayama, the 4-7-8 breathing method is designed to calm the mind and relax the body, making it easier to drift off to sleep.

This method is a rhythmic pattern that emphasizes controlled breathing. It’s known to help with relaxation and stress reduction, making it an excellent practice for those struggling to fall asleep.

Breathing deeply and rhythmically influences heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat, which is linked to the body’s stress response.

A study showed that practicing the 4-7-8 breathing technique improved HRV and blood pressure, even in individuals who suffered from sleep deprivation. This suggests that this breathing pattern not only helps with relaxation but also supports heart health (9).

How to soothe yourself to sleep by 4-7-8 Breathing:

  1. Find a comfortable position: Sit or lie down where you can be relaxed yet alert.
  2. Prepare your breath: Begin by parting your lips and exhaling completely, making a soft whoosh sound.
  3. Inhale: Close your lips and inhale silently through your nose for 4 seconds. Place the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, just behind your front teeth, and keep it there throughout the exercise.
  4. Hold: Hold your breath for 7 seconds. If you find this challenging at first, don’t worry. It will get easier with practice.
  5. Exhale: Exhale completely for 8 seconds, making a whooshing sound. The long exhalation is key to the relaxing effect of this breathing method as it promotes our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
  6. Repeat: Start with four cycles of this breathing pattern. Over time, work your way up to eight repetitions.

Though the practice helps you to relax, remember to stick to the recommended number of repetitions, as doing too many can sometimes lead to dizziness or lightheadedness.

Yoga

Yoga isn’t just about bending and stretching; it’s a holistic approach to well-being. In particular, Yin yoga, a slower-paced style that focuses on holding poses for longer periods, is ideal for nighttime practice. It allows you to tune into your body, release physical tension, and calm your mind.

Numerous studies have shown yoga’s effectiveness in enhancing sleep quality. For instance, a study involved patients with acute insomnia. Those who practiced yoga for 60 minutes daily experienced significant improvements in sleep quality, reduced stress, and enhanced overall well-being (10).

Another study highlighted how a five-week Yin yoga program significantly reduced levels of adrenomedullin, a stress-related biomarker, along with improvements in psychological health (11).

Relaxing your mind to sleep with these gentle yoga practices:

  1. Creating the right environment: Choose a quiet, comfortable space. Dim the lights, light a candle, or use essential oils to create a serene atmosphere.
  2. Starting with Yin yoga: Begin with simple Yin poses. Hold each pose for a few minutes, allowing your body to relax deeply. Focus on your breath and the sensations in your body.
  3. Child’s pose (Balasana): Kneel on the floor, touch your big toes together, and sit on your heels. Separate your knees as wide as your hips and bow forward, laying your torso between your thighs and forehead on the floor. Rest here, feeling the stretch along your spine.
  4. Corpse pose (Savasana): Lie flat on your back, arms by your sides, palms facing upward. Let your feet fall open. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, releasing each body part from toe to head.
  5. Legs-up-the-wall pose (Viparita Karani): Sit close to a wall, then lie back and extend your legs up the wall. Let your arms rest by your sides. Close your eyes and feel the calming effect as blood circulation shifts.
  6. Reclined butterfly (Supta Baddha Konasana): Lie on your back, bend your knees, and bring the soles of your feet together, letting your knees fall out to the sides. Place your hands on your belly or out to the sides and breathe deeply.
  7. Yoga Nidra (Guided Meditation): Finish with Yoga Nidra, a form of guided meditation that brings you to the edge of sleep by releasing stress and tension in your body. Listen to a guided session, focusing on the narrator’s voice and letting go of other thoughts.

Visualization

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a place of absolute tranquility. It could be a quiet beach, a serene mountaintop, or a cozy room with a crackling fireplace.

This is the essence of visualization, a powerful mental exercise that can transport you to a deep relaxation state and prepare you for restful sleep.

By guiding our thoughts towards peaceful imagery, we can evoke calmness and relaxation. This practice can be particularly beneficial for those who struggle with sleep due to anxiety or intrusive thoughts.

Studies show that visualization can significantly reduce stress and improve sleep quality. It works by activating the parasympathetic nervous system – crucial for a good night’s sleep (12).

Let’s walk through how to calm down to go to sleep with visualization:

  1. Set the scene: Find a quiet, comfortable spot where you won’t be disturbed. Lie down or sit comfortably, ensuring minimal distractions.
  2. Choose your oasis: Select a relaxing environment, either from a cherished memory or your imagination. It could be a tranquil beach, a quiet forest, a cozy cabin, or any place that symbolizes peace and relaxation.
  3. Engage your senses:
    • Sight: Picture the environment in vivid detail. What colors and shapes do you see? Is it a sunny day at the beach or a starry night in the mountains?
    • Sound: Incorporate sounds into your imagery. Is it the soothing rhythm of waves, the gentle rustle of leaves, or the soft crackling of a fire?
    • Smell: Imagine the scents associated with your setting. The salty sea air, fresh pine from the forest, or the comforting aroma of a warm beverage?
    • Taste: Consider any tastes that might be present. The freshness of mountain air, the tanginess of seawater, or the flavor of a favorite nighttime tea?
    • Touch: Focus on physical sensations. The warmth of the sun on your skin, the cool breeze on a hilltop, or the softness of blankets in a cozy room.
  4. Deepen the experience: As you visualize, practice deep, slow breathing. With each breath, allow yourself to sink deeper into the scene, feeling more relaxed and at peace.
  5. Sustain the visualization: Remain in this state for as long as you feel comfortable, ideally 10-20 minutes. Keep focusing on the calming sensations and your deep, rhythmic breathing.
  6. Gently return: When ready, slowly bring your awareness back to the present. Notice how much more relaxed and ready for sleep you feel.

Progressive muscle relaxation

By systematically tensing and then releasing different muscle groups, Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) creates a deep state of relaxation throughout your body.

PMR has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and improve sleep quality significantly. This method directly affects the autonomic nervous system, which controls our fight-or-flight response, encouraging a shift towards the rest-digest–restore & renew mode essential for deep, restorative sleep (13).

Step-by-Step Guide for PMR:

  1. Preparation: Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down. Minimize distractions to create an environment conducive to relaxation.
  2. Foot muscles: Begin at the feet. Curl your toes under, tensing the foot muscles. Hold this tension for about 5 seconds. Then, slowly release for 10 seconds, focusing on the soothing wave of relaxation washing your feet.
  3. Lower legs: Tense the muscles in your calves. Hold for 5 seconds, feeling the tension build. Gently release for 10 seconds, noticing the relief as the muscles relax.
  4. Hips and buttocks: Tighten the muscles in your hips and buttocks. Hold for 5 seconds, acknowledging the tension. Slowly release for 10 seconds, embracing the sensation of relaxation.
  5. Stomach and chest: Engage the muscles in your stomach and chest. Hold for 5 seconds, aware of the tension. Release for 10 seconds, feeling the stress melt away.
  6. Shoulders: Lift your shoulders up towards your ears, tensing them. Hold for 5 seconds, then let them drop, releasing the tension over 10 seconds.
  7. Face: Tense the facial muscles by squeezing your eyes shut or puckering your lips. Hold for 5 seconds and then slowly release for 10 seconds, enjoying the calmness that follows.
  8. Hands: Make fists with your hands, squeezing tightly. Hold for 5 seconds, then release for 10 seconds, feeling the tension dissolve.

Repeat this process with each muscle group, moving upwards or downwards. Remember, the key is in the release phase – focus on the sensation of tension leaving your body.Mind-body practices support inhibition of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight responses) and activation of the parasympathetic system via the vagus nerve. This is the longest cranial nerve that sends information about the state of the body up to the brain through afferent fibers, termed bottom-up communication.

Mind-body practices have been demonstrated to support homeostasis by enhancing vagal tone, as well as modulating autonomic, hormonal, immune, and inflammatory responses (16), all of which support the stress response. This highlights the importance of getting into the body to slow down the mind. Mind-body practices may be especially important if you’re having difficulty sleeping with mental practices alone.

These five mental exercises help you calm down for sleep. Deep breathing is more than just inhaling; it relaxes your brain and eases stress. The rhythmic 4-7-8 technique calms your mind and benefits your heart. Yoga supports mind-body alignment for better sleep. Visualization acts as a mental retreat for relaxation and sleep prep. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), which involves tensing and relaxing muscles, helps lessen anxiety and soothes your body.

When to seek professional help to relax and sleep?

Sometimes, finding peace on restful nights lies in professional help. Recognizing when to seek this help is crucial in your journey towards better sleep and improved well-being.

Signs that you should see a specialist

Sleep issues can stem from various causes, and often, simple changes in lifestyle or environment can make a significant difference.

However, there are times when professional intervention becomes necessary. Consider talking to a professional if some of these occur:

  1. Persistent insomnia: If you find yourself lying awake night after night, struggling to fall or stay asleep, and this has been a pattern for several weeks or months, it’s a clear signal to seek help.
  2. Symptoms of sleep apnea: If you or your partner notice symptoms like loud snoring, gasping for air, or frequent awakenings, it could be indicative of sleep apnea, a serious condition that requires medical attention (14).
  3. Impact on daytime functioning: When lack of sleep starts affecting your daily activities – fatigue, decreased focus, irritability, or memory issues – it’s time to consult a specialist.
  4. Observable changes noted by others: Often, others may notice changes in your sleep patterns or daytime behavior before you do. Pay attention to comments about snoring, restlessness, or daytime sleepiness from family, friends, or colleagues.
  5. Altered routines due to stress or lifestyle changes: If you find your sleep has been consistently disrupted following a major life event, job change, or even due to stress, and the situation doesn’t improve over time, seeking professional help can provide the guidance needed to navigate these changes.

Who can help relax your mind to sleep?

Understanding the different types of sleep specialists can help you find the right assistant that suits your needs.

Here are two common professionals that can help with your sleep:

  1. General practitioners (GPs): People often start here. GPs can assess overall health and identify any underlying issues contributing to sleep disturbances. They may suggest initial strategies such as improving sleep hygiene or making lifestyle changes.

Sleep therapists or psychologists: For issues related to stress, anxiety, or habits affecting sleep, a therapist specializing in sleep disorders can be invaluable. They often use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), a highly effective treatment focusing on changing thoughts and behaviors impacting sleep (15).

Why can’t I calm my mind to sleep?

Calming your mind for sleep is tricky but not impossible. Often, your brain becomes a party host for worries and plans. This happens because your brain is processing the day’s events. To calm it down, try relaxation techniques that engage the body and mind.

How does getting outside support sleep?

As noted, our fast-paced and often oversaturated technological lifestyle can throw off our sleep by dysregulating balance in the body and mind. Simply getting outdoors in nature can reduce inflammation and cortisol in the body, as well as have modulating effects on hormones and immune function. Getting sunlight first thing in the morning can also promote the balance of our internal clock or circadian rhythm, supporting key regulatory processes in the body (17).

What is the 20-minute rule for insomnia?

The 20-minute rule for insomnia is your escape from endless tossing and turning. If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing in low light. Avoid screens or stimulating activities. This rule helps break the association of your bed with frustration and wakefulness.

How can I train my brain to stay asleep?

Here are a few practices and strategies to train your brain to stay asleep. Stick to a sleep schedule, even on weekends. Create a pre-sleep routine that calms you down, and make your bedroom a sleep haven – cool, dark, and quiet. It’s about teaching your brain that bed equals sleep, not the next episode in your Netflix binge.

What is the 10, 3, 2, 1, 0 rule for sleep?

The 10, 3, 2, 1, 0 rule is like a countdown for a great night’s sleep. It goes like this: 10 hours before bed, no more caffeine. Three hours before bed, avoid big meals and workouts. Two hours before, stop working. One hour before, no more screen time. And 0 is the number of times you hit the snooze button. Follow this, and you’re on your way to dreamland.

What is the 4-7-8 sleeping method?

The 4-7-8 sleeping method is like a magic spell for sleep. You breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. This rhythmic breathing mimics a meditative state, tricking your body into relaxation mode.

Summary

In our journey through how to relax your mind to sleep, we’ve explored not just why relaxation is key to good sleep but also practical mental exercises. 

From the calming rhythms of deep breathing and the 4-7-8 method to the harmonious balance of yoga, visualization, and Progressive Muscle Relaxation, we’ve covered a spectrum of techniques for how to calm down to go to sleep. 

Remember, your sleep environment plays a crucial role, too. And when these methods aren’t enough, knowing when to seek professional help can be a game-changer in achieving restful nights. 

So, as you tuck in tonight, carry these tools with you and have a good night.

How Do You Feel About This Article?

Lauren-Ann

Medical reviewed by Lauren Ann Teeter, CNS, LCSW

Functional & Integrative Approach To Mental Health, Functional Nutrition, Functional & Integrative Medicine, Psychotherapy, Mental Health

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