An insomniac’s guide for getting back to sleep fast

An insomniac’s guide for getting back to sleep fast

Most of what keeps us awake is stress. Meditation can be just the thing to relax your mind to let yourself deeply rest and sleep.

Most of what keeps us awake is stress. Meditation can be just the thing to relax your mind to let yourself deeply rest and sleep.

by Diana Lang — 

There are times in life when we just cannot sleep. We roll over and toss and turn, becoming wide awake but hoping to fall back to sleep again. Whether it be for short intermittent periods during stressful and challenging times, or long years of sleeplessness caused by chronic tension, insomnia can be like the quiet beast in the dead of night that slowly drains our energy, making us vulnerable and weary, tired and depressed.

If insomnia becomes chronic, we may try natural remedies like melatonin or magnesium, but if those do not work we could end up reaching for alcohol or other kinds of drugs, including stronger pharmaceutical medications, in our basic biological need to fall asleep.

Most of what keeps us awake is stress. Meditation can be just the thing to relax your mind to let yourself deeply rest and sleep.

When we worry, we create stress hormones and chemistry that tell the body that something is wrong. It can trigger the sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for producing the fight-or-flight response. When this occurs, these stress hormones can elevate, causing the heart rate to increase and blood pressure to rise. To us, this feels like nervousness, worry or anxiety — and this tension can literally keep us up all night.

When tense, the sympathetic nervous system tells the body there is danger and to be ready. Anything as ordinary as watching the news before you go to sleep or playing a game on your smart phone can create a stress chemistry in the body that impacts your entire body and sleep pattern.

So how do we get back to sleep? For thousands of years, meditation breathing techniques have helped people get back to sleep by inducing a biology of relaxation. This is good news because breathing is not something we need to buy or go to a doctor for. We can simply breathe.

When we feel safe and relaxed, the body begins to quickly respond to the fight-or-flight response that originates from stress. We can easily replicate the relaxation response by changing our breath patterns. The breath is the governor that both responds and controls the stress reaction.

But, believe it or not, there is a correct way to breathe, and many of us are not doing it. So here are the things to remember:

1. Do not hold your breath — This is probably the most important thing I could tell you about breathing. When the breath is stressed, the body is stressed. And when the breath is held, it very quickly affects the autonomic nervous system, which starts the neural/chemical chain of responses that can eventually trigger a fight-or-flight reaction. Just by remembering to breathe, your whole physiology will relax.

2. Breathe deeply — Start to take deeper breaths —always through the nose –— on both the inhalation and exhalation. Try inhaling for three to five seconds, then exhaling for the same. When you cannot sleep, try doing 10 of these deep breaths in a row. This will begin to change your physiology and create a calm meditational state that will help you sleep.

3. Make sure the breath is not “reversed” — This is less known but very important in terms of your mental state and also your physical one. When the breath is natural, the belly gently expands as you inhale and contracts as you exhale. When this breathing pattern is reversed because of mental or physical tension, the whole body begins to react in a series of autonomic responses like dominos that can trigger a stressed state. You cannot meditate if you are in stress mode. And you definitely cannot sleep.

Check yourself now. Put your hand on your belly as you inhale. As you do this, the belly should gently rise. When you breathe, your belly should gently descend. If it is not doing this, the body is stressed and in a reversed pattern. Changing this one aspect can help you get back to sleep and also improve your immune system and overall health.

4. Add a phrase or a meditation affirmation — Do this as you are breathing in this natural and healthy way. You might say: I am relaxed and at ease. I breathe out tension with every exhalation. All is well with me.

This will further deepen your state of relaxation. In doing so, you are actually performing a mini-meditation. You are teaching yourself to relax on demand. You will begin to notice that you have control over your body and emotions in ways you had not realized and, finally, finally, get back to sleep.


Diana Lang is the author of Opening to Meditation and the owner and director of the LifeWorks Center for Growth in Los Angeles, where she lives. She is also active in a variety of nonprofit international efforts to teach meditation and yoga.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 34, Number 3, June/July 2015.

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