Breathing Into Sleep

It’s one of the top pieces of advice for living a wholesome and healthy life—get more sleep. And like with most advice, it’s easier said than done. 

There are many reasons people have problems with sleeping. Insomnia. Anxiety. A mind that won’t stop racing. Stress. Poor diet—e.g. too much caffeine or too much sugar. Drug side effects. Sedentary lifestyle. Vitamin D deficiency. And so on and so on.

The first step is identifying the cause, because some of the issues listed above will require the help of a medical professional. However, if you find your troubles with sleep are rooted in stress, anxiety or the mind that won’t shut up when you lay your head down, practice breathing into sleep.

Personally, I find I need to wind down in bed for a while. And even though it goes against most mainstream advice for sleep, I do this by watching an hour or two of Netflix with my husband. Some nights we turn off the tv and fall asleep together, and other nights he leaves it on and I focus my mind on breathing, allowing the sound to become background noise. (I should probably note that he usually switches the show to something I have zero interest in).

This, however, may not work for you. You may need a dark quiet room. You may need a white noise machine or soft music or ambient sounds. The idea is to make the room as conducive to you falling asleep as what works for you.

And when you’re ready, get comfortable. Close your eyes and bring your focus to your nostrils. Become aware of the sensation as the breath moves in and out of the nostrils. Allow this to be your home base, so that when your mind begins to wander, which it will, you can gently bring your mind back to the sensation of your breath. You may need to do this over and over again, the trick is not to get frustrated with yourself, but to allow the thoughts to flow and when you notice you’ve gotten lost in thought again, bring yourself back to the breath.

It may help to do a body scan early on as well in order to help relax. Bringing your awareness to the crown of your head, move your attention to the face, neck, shoulders, back, arms, abdomen, hips, legs and feet, letting your awareness rest in each space and relaxing as you exhale. 

If you find you are getting frustrated, try getting out of bed for a short period. Perhaps go sit on the couch for a few minutes. Try reading a few pages of a book, or go to the bathroom, or pace the floor a little bit, before returning to bed. That simple change of location and activity can help move the energy and you can try resettling again.

I struggle with ruminating thoughts in the middle of the night. For whatever reason, I wake up around 2 am sometimes and whatever current stress I’m dealing with will spiral through my mind over and over and over and over, nonstop. For years, I’d lay in bed trying to refocus my mind, trying to quiet the thoughts, and sometimes it worked, but most often I’d end up exasperated and lose out on hours of sleep. These days, I’ve learned not to fight it anymore. Instead of laying there telling my thoughts to shut up, I now go into the living room and either read or turn the tv back on. Almost every time, after only 15-20 minutes, thanks to the distraction, I’m able to focus my mind back on my breathing again and I fall back to sleep.

Whatever your sleep problems are, trying to fight them will not help. Sleep will remain elusive if you’re tense and frustrated while trying to fall into it. The number one thing to help is to identify your struggle, then accept it as an obstacle, and learn how you can relax in spite of it rather than trying to vanquish it. 

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