3 techniques to help you fall asleep

By The Health News Team | May 8, 2023
Illustration of a woman counting sheep to fall asleep

Falling asleep can sometimes be a challenge. Perhaps you’ve taken the steps to prepare for bedtime, such as creating a relaxing environment and avoiding late afternoon caffeine, but you still find yourself lying awake in bed. Now what?

While some people expect to fall asleep the moment their head hits the pillow, Dr. Gary Levinson, a board-certified internal medicine and sleep medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, says that’s an unrealistic expectation.

“We are not a light switch that just turns off,” he says. “The average person typically falls asleep within 15 minutes. Aside from having good sleep hygiene and maintaining a bedtime routine, relaxation techniques can help induce sleepiness.”

According to Dr. Levinson, stress and anxiety are often to blame for sleep issues. When our body’s stress response is activated, it can be immensely challenging to fall and stay asleep. But by activating another natural process — the relaxation response — we can calm the mind, relax the body and help ourselves drift off to sleep naturally.

Dr. Levinson shares three relaxation techniques to help you nod off in no time:


The 4-7-8 method

When you’re stressed out, your sympathetic nervous system — responsible for your fight-or-flight response — is overly active. “Regulating your breath with a breathing technique can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for resting and digesting,” Dr. Levinson says.

The 4-7-8 method involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding that breath for a count of 7 and then exhaling for 8 seconds. If you’re a beginner, you might feel a little lightheaded at first. It’s recommended to start slowly and practice three to four cycles at a time until you are comfortable.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, right behind your front teeth. (You’ll keep it here for the entire exercise.)

  2. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds.

  3. Hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds.

  4. Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds, allowing your exhale to make a natural sound like you’re blowing out a candle.


Body scan

Body scans are a type of mindfulness practice that features a slow, focused attention to different parts of the body. The body scan helps shift the mind away away from a barrage of thoughts to focus on physical sensations. Once you’re lying comfortably in bed, try these steps for a relaxing body scan:

  1. Start by taking a few deep breaths to get your body into a relaxed state.

  2. Bring your attention to your feet, noticing any sensations in your toes and if you’re holding any tension in this part of the body.

  3. If you notice discomfort here, acknowledge it and try to let go of any thoughts. Visualize the tension leaving the body through the breath.

  4. When you’re ready, move your focus to your calf muscles, repeating the process of noticing sensations, letting go of thoughts and visualizing the tension leaving through your breath.

  5. Methodically move your attention to each part of your body, one by one, moving from your feet to your forehead until you’ve scanned your entire body.


Progressive muscle relaxation

The body responds to stress with muscle tension. In turn, tense muscles relay to the body that it's stressed, which keeps the cycle going. Progressive muscle relaxation helps break this cycle by reducing muscle tension and general mental anxiety. 

“This technique involves a conscious effort to relax the muscles of the extremities, face and jaw,” Dr. Levinson says. “And it can help people relax, especially if they are very tense.”

With progressive muscle relaxation, you tense different muscle groups a few times before allowing them to relax. 

  1. Raise your eyebrows to tighten your forehead muscles, then allow them to relax, focusing on the release of tension from the temples.

  2. Squeeze your eyes shut, then allow them to relax. Focus on how your eyelids fall over your eyes.

  3. Smile to feel tension in your cheeks and jaw, then allow them to relax, focusing on how each muscle interacts within your face.

  4. Repeat this process through the rest of your body, moving through muscle groups in the shoulders, arms, abdomen and legs, before finishing at your feet.

  5. Lay in this relaxed position until you doze off to sleep.

It’s worth giving at least one of these sleep tricks a try on a night you can’t seem to doze off. While they might not immediately put you to sleep, these techniques can help reduce stress and anxiety to increase the likelihood of falling asleep. They may also be more effective when combined with other improvements to your sleep hygiene.

If you find yourself having trouble falling or staying asleep often, or you are feeling extra drowsy during the day, Dr. Levinson encourages you to talk with your doctor. There are many treatments available for sleep disorders.

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