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3 Relaxation Exercises for
Stress Relief and Better Sleep

  |    |    6 MIN READ

Learn about the relationship between stress and sleep, and three (3) relaxation techniques to help you de-stress, sleep better, and live a better life.

What the Stress.

With everything going on in the world these days, stress can seem like it's nearly constant. Whether we're at home or work or just trying to relax, something is usually trying to snag our attention, to keep us "always on" in this ultra-connected modern world. As much as anything else, stress can actually have a huge (and negative) impact on our sleep.

Stress can make us tired, but it can also keep us awake at night. It's a double-edged sword, and neither side is good for our health, physically or mentally.

Thankfully, there are some steps that you can take to relieve stress and sleep better with simple relaxation exercises. You can try these out any time of the day or night for a little stress relief.

Why Does Stress Affect Sleep?

Almost everyone has had trouble getting to sleep — or staying asleep — due to the constant push and pull of stress and anxiety. People everywhere go through this internal connection between stress and sleeplessness. In fact, insomnia patients regularly say they feel that stress is one of their #1 issues.

in other words.. you're not alone

But, why does stress cause us to have trouble sleeping? Whether it's falling asleep or staying asleep, stress works doubletime to keep us restless.

First of all, stress and anxiety can both result in racing thoughts, which make it very hard to relax. What's more, racing thoughts can cause people to reach a sort of heightened alertness. In turn, this can make the emotions flare up as well. For people struggling with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), this can include unwanted thoughts, an overwhelming sense of unease, and even fear.

These heightened emotions and thoughts can then lead to physical tension within the body. When we undergo stress, our bodies can flood us with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, kicking our energy and alertness into high gear, raising our pulse and blood pressure, and putting the body on notice for "fight or flight" situations.

As a result of all these stress-induced hormones, people can suffer night after night with just getting a good night's rest. Anxiety can keep you from falling asleep and staying asleep, as we've mentioned, but it can also cause you to wake up earlier than expected or desired, leaving you feeling as if you didn't get any sleep in the first place.

The Results of Prolonged Stress and Sleeplessness

Stress and anxiety, if left untreated and unresolved, can actually result in chronic insomnia. This is defined as any insomnia symptoms that consistently affect an individual and last more than a month. And, because sleep and stress impact each other, this can become a vicious cycle: more stress results in less sleep, which in turn results in more stress.

As if that wasn't enough, all of this stress and lack of sleep can cause people to become increasingly irritable, to lack energy and motivation, and to actually lose their ability to focus and work on tasks efficiently. If it continues, such physical and mental pressure can lead to mental illness such as depression, and physical ailments like weight gain/obesity, diabetes, and metabolic disorders.

All of this goes to say that sleep and stress are deeply related and interconnected. If you help one, then you help the other by virtue of how closely linked they are in the body and mind. One way to do this is through relaxation techniques, such as breathing, guided meditation, and muscular release.

Relaxation Technique #1 — Breathing

One of the oldest and most time-tested relaxation techniques around is simply breathing. When we breathe intentionally and with continual self-awareness, we allow our bodies to relax naturally, organically, and restfully. In other words, the body responds to slow, deep breaths with relaxation.

Relaxation, by extension, allows the muscles to release and settle, the heart rate to trickle down, and the blood pressure and metabolism to ease.

Here's how it works:

 

  • Find a comfortable place to be. Lying down or sitting up are both fine, so long as you're in a pleasant position.
    Set a timer for one minute on your watch or phone, then go ahead and start the timer.
  • Pro Tip: If you have an Apple Watch, you can simply use the built-in Breathe app, which sets the timer for you and gives you a nice, gentle, pulsing feedback on your wrist as you breathe.
  • Close your eyes and focus on your breath.
    Breathe in slowly, counting up to about 4 or 6, depending on your comfort level.
    Breathe out the same way, counting down to about 4 or 6, whatever feels right.
  • If your mind wanders, just gently bring it back to the counting of your breaths.
    Do this until the timer goes off.
    If you want another round, set the timer again and repeat. It's entirely up to you.

For one, you're giving your body a little more oxygen, so it's not working quite so hard. Even a single slow, deep breath can have meditative qualities that are simply and naturally relaxing. As you breathe out with intentional slowness, you are basically doing the same thing your body does unconsciously as you sleep. So, if you repeat this breathing exercise before bed, you may find that nodding off to dreamland happens a little easier each time.

Relaxation Technique #2 — Guided Meditation

In the past, the phrase "guided meditation" might have summoned up images of Buddhist monks in a secluded monastery. Today, that's not the case. With the advent of smartphones like the iPhone and Android, guided meditations are everywhere. Here are a few apps we recommend:

 

  • Calm - iPhone, Android
  • Headspace - iPhone, Android
  • Breethe - iPhone, Android
  • Ten Percent Happier - iPhone, Android

Many of these popular meditation apps even offer guided meditations specifically for falling asleep. In some cases, they feature breathing exercises with someone to help you along the way. In others, a narrator actually reads you a bedtime story. Whichever one you choose, with regular practice guided meditations can be a real game changer for both stress and sleep.

Relaxation Technique #3 — Progressive Muscular Release

The third and final relaxation technique we'll discuss is progressive muscular release (also called progressive muscle relaxation, among other names). According to the University of Michigan, this technique is extremely effective for a number of reasons.

First, they write, "In progressive muscle relaxation, you tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and you relax them as you breathe out. You work on your muscle groups in a certain order." In this way, it's very similar to both breathing exercises and guided meditation, but with an added focus on the muscles and different muscle groups.

The University of Michigan goes on to explain why this is so effective: "When your body is physically relaxed, you cannot feel anxious. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation for a few weeks will help you get better at this skill, and in time you will be able to use this method to relieve stress."

As with focused breathing and guided meditations, you might want to have a smartphone app help you the first few times through this exercise. It can be very helpful to have someone remind you of all the different muscle groups in the body. For some of us, it's been a few years since high school biology or anatomy class!

Relaxation Techniques for Sleep

With these three techniques for relaxation and sleep, we sincerely hope that you're able to find your own way to disconnect, find peace from stress, and get the rest that you deserve each and every night. You can find more tips for getting good sleep on our blog, where we discuss circadian rhythms, insomnia, and much more.

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