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The science behind relaxation: how to fall asleep faster

The science behind relaxation: how to fall asleep faster

Jun 16, 2023

Have you ever felt too stressed to sleep? We’re breaking down the science behind relaxation and giving you 5 techniques to fall asleep faster tonight.

Ever feel like you just can’t relax enough to fall asleep? 

Maybe you’re consumed by the stress of your daily life and struggle to “shut your brain off” at the end of the day. Maybe you feel anxious, or your body is humming with too much tension to drift off. 

Sleeping should be the ultimate form of relaxation - but what if you can’t seem to calm yourself enough to drift off to sleep at all? 

We’re exploring the science behind relaxation: what feeling calm really means for your body and brain, and how you can practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation to make falling asleep easier.

The science behind relaxation

You know what it feels like when you’re relaxed: a lack of tension in your body, and a certain calmness in your head. You also know what it feels like when you’re stressed and anxious: body tense and uncomfortable, brain buzzing with too many thoughts.

But what’s happening inside our bodies to make us feel stressed or relaxed? By understanding the science behind relaxation, we can actually learn to manipulate our body’s response to stress, putting us in a better position to sleep well.

Stress or sleep: the sympathetic vs. parasympathetic nervous systems

When we’re talking about the science behind relaxation, we’re really talking about our body’s autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls a number of important body processes autonomously, meaning we don’t need to think about making them happen in order for our bodies to keep functioning (like breathing, or keeping our heart beating). This system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Our sympathetic nervous system controls our fight, flight, or freeze response. When you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or uncomfortable, it’s the sympathetic nervous system that makes your body respond, raising your heart rate and blood pressure and making you breathe faster. Essentially, it stimulates different parts of our bodies to help keep us alert, aware of our surroundings, and ready to act.

Its counterpart is the parasympathetic nervous system, which works on downregulating these impulses. In other words, the sympathetic nervous system regulates our bodies when we’re stressed, and the parasympathetic nervous system helps us relax.

See your nervous system in action

You can check out the balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in action with a simple test. 

  1. Start by placing two fingers over the radial pulse on your wrist. You should be able to feel your resting heart rate clearly.
  2. Keeping your fingers on your pulse, inhale deeply and hold your breath. You should be able to feel your heart rate increase - that’s your sympathetic nervous system in action.
  3. Exhale while still monitoring your pulse. You should be able to feel your heart rate slow again back to its resting rate - that’s your parasympathetic nervous system kicking in.

This is just a small scale demonstration of heart rate variability - the natural fluctuation of the body’s heart rate.

Why stress keeps us awake

While both the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses are important to keeping our bodies healthy and functioning well, you will find it more difficult to fall asleep if your sympathetic nervous system dominates when you go to bed. 

When we feel stressed, our sympathetic nervous system increases our heart rate and breathing. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis also kicks in to release cortisol, a hormone that keeps you hyper-alert. You’re also likely to experience increased muscle tension as your body prepares itself for potential pain or harm. Chronic stress can even lead to physical symptoms like body pain and migraines

That’s why most techniques for falling asleep fast focus on reducing stress and encouraging a state of relaxation, inhibiting these internal processes. It’s difficult to fall into a comfortable sleep when your mind and heart are racing, your body is tense with pain, and your blood is pumped full of hormones designed to keep you awake and alert. So, rather than feeding the sympathetic nervous system before bed, we want to encourage the parasympathetic system to take over.

Promoting parasympathetic dominance to sleep better

During waking hours, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work in harmony to keep us balanced. But when you’re trying to fall asleep, it’s pretty clear one system is more helpful than the other.

And here’s the good news: while these internal systems are naturally self-regulating, you can influence how they operate in your body. In fact, you can take simple steps to help engage your parasympathetic nervous system, making it dominate over the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response. This will allow you to experience the calming benefits of the parasympathetic system, which more align with the body’s needs when trying to fall asleep.

Let’s take a look at a few exercises and techniques you can try out tonight to promote parasympathetic dominance and have a more relaxing night’s sleep.

5 relaxation exercises to improve your sleep

Now that you understand the science behind relaxation, here are five ways to help reduce stress and calm your body and brain enough to fall asleep. Through deep breathing, meditation, and muscle relaxation exercises, you can learn to encourage your body’s natural downregulation processes, shifting from stressed to sleeping sooner.

Breathing exercises

Controlling our breathing is one of the easiest ways to calm our bodies and brains, allowing us to relax enough to fall asleep. Here are a few specific deep breathing exercises you can practice when trying to drift off to sleep.

4-7-8 breathing

The 4-7-8 breathing technique focuses on controlling the speed of our breaths. By shifting our breathing to spend more time while exhaling, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system, shifting into a state of relaxation.

Steps to practice the 4-7-8 breathing technique:

  1. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds.
  2. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  3. Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds.
  4. Repeat the process.

This technique is one of the simplest ways to transition your body from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance.

Who can practice 4-7-8 breathing?

Because this breathing technique aims to help you control your breathing speed, it’s useful both for relaxing enough to fall asleep and for helping to calm anxiety. However, if you’re uncomfortable or unable to hold your breath for 7 seconds, shorten the amount of time you hold your breath to your comfort level.  For example, 4-5-6 or 4-6-7 is also an option. Being consistent is key. 

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing, works by engaging our diaphragm, the muscle at the base of the lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing is both calming and a good way to strengthen the diaphragm muscle, increasing our overall breathing efficiency.

Steps to practice diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. While lying down in bed, place one hand flat on your upper chest and the other on your stomach, just below your rib cage.
  2. Breath in slowly through your nose. Your hand on your chest should remain as still as possible, while you should feel your stomach press against your other hand as you inhale.
  3. Continue to keep your chest still, but tighten your stomach muscles. Exhale through pursed lips (like you’re whistling). 
  4. Repeat the process.

Try a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing when you get into bed. Because many of us aren’t used to engaging our diaphragm when we breathe, it may take you some practice to adjust. As you get accustomed to the feeling, you can gradually increase the time spent practicing diaphragmatic breathing to maximize its benefits.

Who can practice diaphragmatic breathing?

Diaphragmatic breathing is safe for most adults. However, if you are uncomfortable or unable to lie on your back, this method is likely not for you.

Meditation exercises

Meditation exercises can reduce pain sensitivity and stress, helping you feel relaxed enough to fall asleep. Here are a few mindfulness and visualization exercises you can practice when trying to drift off to sleep.

Body scanning

Body scanning is a type of meditation that helps you relax by slowly visualizing the release of tension from every part of your body. This can help you feel both physically and mentally more relaxed.

Steps to practice body scanning:

  1. Lie down in bed and take a few deep breaths to help yourself relax.
  2. Starting with your feet, focus on each part of your body one at a time. Notice any tension you’re holding there.
  3. If you notice any tension or discomfort, visualize it leaving your body as you exhale.
  4. Move up to your calves, checking once again for tension and releasing it with your breath.
  5. Repeat the process moving up your body, focused on one body part at a time, until you’ve “scanned” your entire body up to your head.

If you find it difficult to concentrate on releasing tension from one part of your body at a time, you may want to try the next method instead, which adds in phrases to help you train your focus.

Autogenic training

Autogenic training builds upon the body scanning practice, adding in self-statements about each part of your body that contribute to helping you feel safe, relaxed, and ready to fall asleep. Essentially, you make it a point to tell yourself each part of your body feels warm and heavy and calm, until you feel those things are true.

Steps to practice autogenic training:

Lie down in bed and take a few deep breaths to help yourself relax.

  1. Lie down in bed and take a few deep breaths to help yourself relax.
  2. Choose an opening affirmation, such as “I am completely calm” or “I am relaxed and ready for sleep.” Repeat it out loud to yourself six times.
  3. Begin your body scan at your feet, focusing on one part of your body at a time. As you bring your attention to your feet, repeat to yourself six times, “My feet are very warm.”
  4. Repeat your opening affirmation.
  5. Still focused on your feet, repeat six times, “My feet are very heavy.” Finish with your opening affirmation again.
  6. Repeat the process with each part of your body, repeating the phrases about heaviness and warmth as you move through your body scan.

More sleep meditation options

Some people find sleep meditation most helpful when someone else repeats affirmations or guides them along their meditation journey. You may also want to experiment with meditating in silence, or with a relaxing soundscape in the background. To that end, you can find a number of different guided sleep meditation audios and videos online. You can test out popular apps like Headspace or Calm, or head over to YouTube or Spotify to find a meditation that appeals to you.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, involves intentionally creating and then releasing tension in various muscle groups. It’s based on the theory that physical relaxation can also promote mental relaxation.

Steps to practice progressive muscle relaxation:

  1. Lie down in bed and take a few deep breaths to help yourself relax.
  2. Starting with your feet, curl your toes downward. Hold for 5 seconds, then let go.
  3. Relax for 10 seconds, concentrating on feeling the difference between having your toes tensed and relaxed.
  4. Move on to your next muscle group, tensing your calves for 5 seconds. Then, let go.
  5. Relax for 10 seconds, concentrating on feeling the difference between having your calves tensed and relaxed.
  6. Repeat the process with one muscle group at a time, working your way across your entire body. 
  7. Remember to only tense one muscle group at a time, and to pause to relax before tensing a new muscle group.

If you have certain areas of your body that carry more tension than others, you may want to include them more than once during your PMR session. For example, if your shoulders feel especially tense, you may want to start by tensing and relaxing your shoulders, then move on to the rest of your body, and then end on your shoulders once more.

And remember, you shouldn’t feel any sharp or unusual pain during progressive muscle relaxation. The goal isn’t to make your muscles feel so tensely wound that they hurt - it’s to tighten them enough so that you feel the benefit of releasing that tension again.

Final tips for using relaxation exercises to fall asleep

Whether you’re trying deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation to improve your sleep, keep these things in mind:

  • Practice makes perfect. The relaxation techniques we’ve outlined here will likely be new skills for you. And like any new skill, these techniques require some practice to perfect. If you don’t immediately feel relaxed after one round of 4-7-8 breathing, don’t just give up. Keep practicing! 
  • Do what works for you. Just like there isn’t one reason we might feel stressed, anxious, or unable to sleep, there isn’t one relaxation exercise that’s best for everyone. Test out a few different methods from our list and see which works best for you.
  • There are other ways to improve your sleep. If ongoing practice with these different techniques leaves you feeling relaxed, but still struggling to drift off to sleep, remember relaxation exercises are just one method of many to improve your sleep.

It’s also worth mentioning that while we’re specifically discussing these relaxation techniques in the context of helping you fall asleep, many of these can be used to regulate your response to any stressful or overwhelming situation. You may want to try a quick round of 4-7-8 breathing the next time you start feeling stressed at work, or take a 15 minute meditation break to recenter yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed by your To Do list.

Breathe out anxiety. Breathe in better sleep.

We all face stress and anxiety in our lives, but we should only ever have to face them head-on during our waking hours. If muscle tension or racing thoughts are keeping you from falling asleep and staying asleep, give some relaxation exercises a try. A few calming breaths can be a powerful tool in transforming your sleepless night into sound slumber.

If you still find yourself feeling high levels of anxiety even after practicing relaxation techniques, or if you believe your sleep problems are severely impacting your life, check out My RBI Academy. We’ll send you new tips and tricks for improving your cognitive health each month, all backed by our years of medical expertise and grounded in our holistic six pillar approach.


Learn more about My RBI Academy