Breathing and Relaxation Techniques for Insomnia

I have found that four kinds of breathing and relaxation techniques are most effective in helping to cure chronic insomnia. They are…

1. Progressive muscular relaxation

2. Relaxation breathing exercises

3. Letting go techniques

4. Creative Visualization

Before I describe these practices in detail, I’d like to explain why breathing and relaxation techniques are so important in chronic insomnia relief.

The Mind-Body Connection

mind-body connectionI have talked about the mind-body connection elsewhere on this site. It’s an important concept to understand because we tend to divide ourselves and what we’re experiencing in our health into two parts: mental and physical.

So when our back hurts, we think we have a physical problem. When thoughts and worries race through our mind at night, we think we have a mental problem. But to be accurate, we need to think of both of these events as mind-body experiences.

Breathing and relaxation techniques are true mind-body practices. They unite both parts and for some insomniacs, they offer a major breakthrough in insomnia self help.

As mentioned in my cure for insomnia article, the techniques are approached in different ways.

For example, progressive muscular relaxation is approached through the body as you feel the physical tension in each area and deliberately release it. In the process of working your way up from your toes, you reach a quieter and more peaceful state of mind.

Letting go techniques are approached through both mind and body – that is, you start with an emotion or feeling and then “feel it” in your body, where you can then release it. You can then enjoy a simultaneous feeling of relaxation both areas.

Creative visualization begins in the mind and stays there pretty much the whole time. But in the course of your fantasy, you are using your memory of physical sensations to make the visualization more “real” and more effective. In doing this, you’re automatically helping your body to relax (since of course your visualizations for insomnia will be very relaxing ones!).

OK, enough of the explaining. Let’s learn some breathing and relaxation techniques.

I’ve already covered progressive muscle relaxation in this article, along with a script that you can customize for yourself.

Breathing and Relaxation Technique #2 – Deep Breathing

Breathing exercises usually have three stages – inhale, hold and exhale. For relaxation, the best breathing pattern is

  1. Inhale slowly, counting up to 5 or 6 for each in-breath
  2. Hold for a count of 3-6
  3. Exhale slowly for a count of 3-6

You can also vary the technique on the exhale. Instead of breathing out slowly, you can breathe out quickly in a loud “whoosh” and then pause just slightly before you begin your next inhalation.

As you breathe out, allow your body and all of its muscles to completely relax. The secret of total relaxation is to not try too hard, because the tension from trying cancels out any relaxation effort! Like insomnia, relaxation can sometimes be a paradox. You have to let go of any preconceived ideas of what relaxation “should” feel like. Just do the best you can. Believe me, you will get better with practice.

Note: If you are not accustomed to deep breathing, you may find yourself getting lightheaded or short of breath at first. If this happens, don’t panic, but let up on the deep breathing techniques. Do less repetitions, and make sure you are not trying to inhale too much air at once or hold your breath for too long.

If you find yourself coughing when you hold your breath, you are overdoing it! Take shorter inhalations and make sure you’re not tense in your throat and upper respiratory area. Stay as relaxed as possible.

As you practice it will get easier, but there’s no need to overdo it. Take it slowly and gently. There is no reason to rush. If you continue to have discomfort, discontinue the breathing relaxation techniques and consult with your doctor. You might want to consult with your doctor before you start breathing techniques if you have asthma or any other respiratory problem. I have had below average lung function for most of my life but I can still do this. It just takes a gentler approach.

Breathing and Relaxation Technique #3: Letting-go exercises

As breathing and relaxation techniques go, what I call “letting go” methods can be powerful and effective – with practice, of course. Here is the basic method, which you can try right now if you like.

  1. Sit quietly and if possible, close your eyes.
  2. Think of something that concerns you or bothers you.
  3. As the thought of what this might be enters your awareness, notice the emotion or feeling that accompanies the thought. It might be fear, sadness, anger, shame, or maybe a combination of several emotions all mixed together.
  4. Now focus on the “felt sense” of this feeling in your physical body. Most likely the physical side of the emotion will come up in your throat, chest or stomach area. It could feel like…

    Electric shocks

    Achy feeling
    …or a combination of these or some other sensation.

  5. Make sure you just sit with this for a while so you can experience the full sensation, quietly and without judgment. There is no rush, so just feel it for a while.
  6. Now visualize a door opening from the part of your body where the feeling is centered, that leads to the outside. (Keeping your eyes closed will help imagine this opening).
  7. It can be a door, a window, a pipe or duct, or any other opening mechanism you like.
  8. In your mind’s eye, open that door/window/etc. and allow the feeling to flow out.
  9. You can breath out to help it flow through the opening.
  10. Continue until the “felt sense” of the feeling is completely gone. You may feel lighter, clearer, and more relaxed inside.
  11. If it helps the process, you can visualize the feeling as smoke or steam building up and then flowing out the door as soon as you open it.
  12. Continue this as long as you like, then open your eyes.

Letting-go techniques deserves more attention, so stay tuned for more information on it.

Breathing and Relaxation Technique #4 – Visualization

Visualization is simply using your imagination to guide your brain and nervous system to make that transition from an active “daytime” thinking state to a calm, sleepy “nighttime” low-activity state.

If you like to think in terms of brain waves, it is getting from a “beta” to an “alpha” state.

Visualization techniques work best for people with active minds who tend to worry and visualize a lot in their daily lives. It may give these busy thinkers an outlet for their imagination that helps them sleep better – instead of keeping them awake.

The most effective way to “imagine” yourself to sleep is to turn your nighttime visualization into an engaging story. Notice I said “engaging” but not “exciting.”

Since we want to relax and sleep, we don’t want to visualize anything stimulating that will keep us awake, of course. But if you already are in a high-brain-activity state, the visualization you choose must be interesting and compelling enough to make yourself pay attention to it rather than to the thoughts circling around in your mind.

So what kind of “bedtime story” should you use? Well, what has always worked well for me is the one I call Journey and Destination.

The name says it all – this is a two-part process.

In the course of your visualization, you will make a long, tedious, difficult journey to a sublimely relaxing, comforting, sleepy place – and by the time you reach your destination, you are so exhausted, you must muster all the strength you have left just to fall into bed.

If this breathing and relaxation technique using visualization sounds intriguing, read more about it here…

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Learn more about breathing and relaxation techniques in the Insomnia Self Help Tutorial