I am a historically terrible sleeper. For this, I blame years of being afraid of the dark as a child. Exhausted, but perennially terrified that the monsters would get me, I'd lock my bedroom door, turn on all the lights, and read every book in my library until the sun came up. My mother, however, says that it's because every night throughout her pregnancy, my father would come home from work and talk to me at night. It was no surprise that I was born at eleven o'clock at night.
Chances are, you've had a few brushes with sleeplessness too. In Stephanie Silberman's fantastic book, The Insomnia Workbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting the Sleep You Need, she quotes the National Sleep Foundation's 2007 poll in which "approximately 67% of women reported having a sleep problem at least a few nights per week within the past month with 46% indicating a sleep problem every night or almost every night." Understanding a bit about our physical and mental chemistry, it's no wonder many of us struggle to get the rest we need.
Over the years, I've worked hard to conquer occasional bouts of insomnia. I've tried natural and herbal remedies, like Valerian root and Bedtime Teas, and have turned to more allopathic medicine in dire times of need. But when daytime stress level increase, the sleep demons return, rendering most of these tools useless and not sustainable for the long run.
What is effective, however, is ensuring that I maintain proper sleep hygiene (which is a whole post within itself) and keep a rotation of relaxation techniques in my arsenal. While true sleep problems may require professional help and a more comprehensive approach, below are a few tried-and-true tricks that I turn to in an effort to encourage the sweet slumber we all love and need.
Simple Techniques for Peaceful Relaxation
Guided visualizations are amazing at bringing focus to the sensory elements to help you relax. A new favorite scene, "The Mountain" from The Insomnia Workbook, is shared here, and can be performed in a dimly lit room, while in a comfortable position, before bedtime.
Another approach is to use a recorded visualization to help you fall asleep. For this, Belleruth Naparstek's Healthful Journeys: A Meditation to Help You With Helpful Sleep is the by far best that I've found. When first used over four years ago, the restfulness was instantaneous, and I couldn't even remember falling asleep (which is pretty much the goal!).
Meditation is amazing for educing daytime stress, encouraging overall centering, and bringing the self to the present. My favorite meditation is Metta bhavana (Loving-Kindness Meditation), which is a Buddhist practice of unconditional compassion that has been shown effective at reducing pain and producing a positive sense of well-being. I also prefer to perform this before bedtime, but it's very effective any time of the day.
Mantras are sacred utterances - simple words and phrases that when repeated can bring peace and focus. Like counting sheep, but with words, these one-liners are extremely effective either before or while trying to fall asleep. For beginners, try repeating the sleep mantra:
Om Agasthi Shahina (Ōm Ah-gah´-stee Shah-ee´-nah)
If you find yourself distracted, bring your mind back to the words by focusing the pronunciation and repetition.
For a more guided experience, try a recorded mantra journey, like that of Deva Premal and Mitten and notice how it changes your evening routine over time.
Deep belly breathing is amazing at calming an anxious soul. It slows down your heart rate by stimulating your vagus nerve, and gets oxygen flowing to spaces created when we engage in shallow nervous breaths. To do so, bring your attention to your breathing and notice the parts of your body that rise and fall. Place one hand on your belly, and another on your chest and focus on inhaling until your stomach is expanded. After a few breaths this way, then focus on letting any extra air fill up your chest and lungs after your belly is full. Practice this for several minutes.
Once you've conquered the belly breath, change your focus to breath timing. The most effective count of relaxation breathing that I've experienced is 4-7-8. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 long seconds. Repeat for at least five minutes and notice how much more relaxed you feel.