Three practices to find your calm
Switching off at the end of the day can be a challenge. Especially after a stressful day. Much is written about avoiding the negative effects of blue light from the television and mobile devices, limiting consumption of alcohol in the evenings, not going to bed immediately after a heavy meal and more.
These are all very helpful in aiding sleep. However, very little focus is placed on the role that breathing plays in deep restful sleep. Breathing? What’s that got to do with sleep, you ask. It turns out that it plays a crucial role.
Do you wake up in the morning with a dry mouth, feeling fatigued if not exhausted, feeling anxious, lacking in energy? These are symptoms that you have not had a restful and restorative night’s sleep. They could also indicate poor breathing patterns.
Do you typically
- breathe through the mouth
- breathe fast and shallow in the upper chest
- breathe audibly
- frequently sigh
- frequently yawn
These are all traits of poor breathing patterns. Mouth breathing is typically fast and shallow and this activates the sympathetic nervous system (flight-fight-fear response that alerts and prepares the body for an emergency). If you’re going to bed in a heightened state of emergency, it’s unlikely that you will be relaxed and able to enjoy a good night’s sleep.
In contrast, good breathing is light, low, slow, through the nose and using the diaphragm (often called belly breathing). Deeper, slower breathing activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system (the response after the emergency has passed). The whole body calms and relaxes. Sleep is deeper with nose breathing. Sleep is deeper with slow breathing. These are the ingredients for a good night’s sleep, waking rested and alert in the morning.
Research is now highlighting the role that poor breathing patterns play in our modern day lifestyle. The good news is that it is possible to reverse and re-educate our way of breathing. Remember that we are typically taking around 23,000 breaths a day and with attention and awareness each breath is an opportunity to create new patterns of good breathing. Good breathing during the day will help reeducate the brain for good breathing at night and breath-by-breath you can make changes.
Breathing correction requires a tailored approach for each individual but there are practices that you can begin to implement each night to help stimulate the calming parasympathetic nervous system in an easy 30 minute ritual before sleep.
1. Slow and calm
Start by simply observing your breath without trying to change it. Breathe only through the nose. Calm the breath (if you can) and relax the body. Breathe slowly and rhythmically. In and out. In and out. Can you hear your breath? Consciously soften and quieten the breath. Slow it down even more. Exhale fully so that your body, especially your shoulders, feel completely relaxed. Focus on the feeling of the breath coming gently in through the nostrils and then on the breath exhaling gently and slowly out through the nostrils. Cooler air inhaling and warmer breath exhaling. Check you are not holding the breath at any point of the cycle. If you become distracted, no judgement! Simply refocus on the breath. Now become aware of your heart and heart beat – the steady coherent drumbeat. The heart contains nerves from both the sympathetic (think emergency response) and parasympathetic (think calming response) nervous system. When you’re breathing slowly and gently, the parasympathetic nervous system is being activated and this has an effect on the heart. The heart, too, slows and beats in a more regular, balanced and calm state.
Do this for 10 minutes.
2. Feel the gratitude
Now that your breathing is calm, relaxed and coherent with a steady heart beat, bring feelings of gratitude into your heart. In every day life, we take so much for granted (and often focus on fear, anger, guilt) but there is something very powerful about an attitude of gratitude. Bring to mind what you are grateful for, hold and amplify the feelings. Research from the HeartMath Institute has proven that when an elevated emotion (such as gratitude, appreciation, love, joy, thankfulness) is combined with the heart and the breath, our bodies respond positively. There is a connection between the breath, the heart, emotions and the nervous system. This practice helps to keep them in coherence which is good news for enjoying better health, including better sleep!
Do this for 10 minutes.
With the mouth closed take a gentle slow breath in and on a long slow exhale (still with the mouth closed) begin humming any sound. The humming helps to reduce tension and releases nitric oxide in the nasal airways. Nitric oxide is a powerful body chemical that widens blood vessels, increases oxygen take-up in the blood and results in a better blood flow (and oxygenation) in the lungs. It will help you get to sleep much quicker than counting sheep!
Do this for 10 minutes.
Stop at any time during the practices should you feel anxiety or panic.
Thank you for trying these practices. I’m happy to get your feedback. Post a comment below or you can reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dispenza, Joe. Becoming Supernatural. London: Hay House. 2017
McKeown, Patrick. The Breathing Cure: exercises to develop new breathing habits for a healthier, happier and longer life. OxyAt Books. 2021
Nestor, James. Breath: the new science of a lost art. Penguin Life. 2020