How to Sleep Better: Part Four
Better Sleep Habits One, Two and Three are actually habits that start well before climbing into bed. By then, hopefully you’ve eaten an earlier, lighter dinner, noticed when you’re tired, and turned off all screens at least an hour beforehand. But once you’re actually in bed, what happens? For many people, this is the time the mind begins to race, reviewing the events of the day, and projecting forward to what lies ahead tomorrow, next month or next year. This does not lead us to the heavy, grounded mind/body state that helps to promote sound sleep.
In fact, our fast paced modern life often sets off the fight or flight response, triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. Stress hormones are then released by the body throughout the day, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. The sympathetic nervous system is necessary to our survival because it enables us to respond quickly when there's a threat, but our system is not equipped to handle the constant flood of stress hormones, according to this excellent article in Psychology Today.
So tip four begins when you finally turn off the lights.
Sleep Better Habit Four: Sleep Breathing
Lie in bed on your back with the lights off. Place your hands, palms facing down, on your abdomen.
§ Feel your breathing and tap into the sensations of each inhale and exhale. Begin to count your breaths without changing anything else. This practice alone may help you fall asleep more rapidly by giving your mind a repetitive task, like old fashioned counting sheep.
§ Begin to lengthen your exhale so it’s longer than your inhale. For example, if you inhale and exhale for three counts each, simply extend the exhale to four counts. Gradually work towards doubling the length of the exhale so it is twice as long as the inhale.
§ If you awaken during the night, come back to this breath practice
§ Repeat in your mind the word “Sleep”. This last part is optional, but is my secret to falling back to sleep after I’ve awakened during the night.
A longer exhale stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and restore regulator. Richard P. Brown, M.D. and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D. write in “The Healing Power of the Breath, “Messages from the respiratory system have rapid, powerful effects on major brain centers involved in thought, emotion, and behavior.”
Yoga teacher Rod Stryker writes of additional benefits of stimulating the parasympathetic system. It “is the part of your nervous system that slows you down—it's responsible for telling your muscles to relax, improving your digestion and assimilation, boosting immunity… It also normalizes your blood pressure and lowers your heart rate. The parasympathetic nervous system counteracts many stress-related symptoms and the negative by-products of our modern, fast-paced, high-output lives. And to think that every human being can activate this system simply by changing the way they breathe. Powerful preventative medicine, and the cost is free.