How to Get to Sleep and Find Your Calm

One thing many adults and teens have in common is the need to get a better night’s sleep. And while there’s no substitute for a good night’s sleep, sometimes just getting to sleep can present quite a challenge.

Parents and Teens: A Shared Sleep Challenge

Both parents and teens may have experienced this scenario. You’re in bed late at night, and as you close your eyes, your mind starts swirling. Stressful thoughts begin playing out in your head. Maybe you’re concerned about life during a pandemic, or you have an upcoming presentation or test. Perhaps you’re worried about having to get to work or school the next day. This mental roadblock to your best bedtime intentions won’t go away.

Not Getting Enough Sleep Harms the Body

A lack of sleep can take a toll on your body. Missing sleep changes your ability to function, potentially decreasing your ability to think clearly, almost as if you were legally drunk! Sleep is also needed to allow the brain to cleanse itself of toxins that build up as part of its normal day-to-day functioning.

So how can you flip your mind and body from stressed to sleepy? Two things must happen. First, the nervous system needs to switch into a relaxed state. Second, you need to distract yourself from the thoughts and feelings racing through your mind.

Breathing Relaxes Your Body

Forget using the common distraction technique of counting sheep. That gets boring quickly. As a result, you’re likely to lose focus before it can help. Instead, try using the 4-8 breathing method – a technique that allows you to fool your body into a restful state. Here’s how it works.

The body has a relaxed nervous system and a stressed nervous system. These systems run in parallel – either one or the other is on. Dr. Ken Ginsburg, the co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, explains, “If your stressed nervous system is on, your body doesn’t want to fall asleep, because you have to be ready to ‘run from a tiger’ (the thing that’s stressing you) at any moment.” So how do you turn on the relaxed nervous system? You need to do the opposite of what you would do if running from a tiger. Dr. Ginsburg says, “There are many ways in which bodies change if they were running from a tiger, but there’s only one that you can control. That’s the breath. Nervous breathing is shallow and rapid.  It is only through choosing to do the opposite — taking deep, slow breaths, that you transform your body’s nervous system from stressed to relaxed.” Once you’re relaxed, you can get those zzz’s.

How the 4-8 Breathing Technique Works

Lay comfortably on your back. You’re going to work to take deep breaths that fill the belly and then the chest.

1) Inhale and take a full breath while counting slowly to four. Feel your belly rise. 

2) Hold that breath for about twice as long — and then slowly exhale to a count of eight – or even longer if you can.

3) Repeat this about ten times and notice how your body begins to feel more relaxed – even sleepy!

Dr. Ginsburg offers a bonus movement to help further occupy your mind as you work on getting the breathing right. He suggests placing your hands together and resting them on your belly, allowing your fingers to interlock loosely with one another. Notice when you inhale, your fingers move apart and as you exhale, your fingers move back together. You become so immersed in getting this right that your intrusive thoughts fade away.  Your nervous system relaxes, and then your body drifts to sleep.

Remain Flexible

The 4-8 breathing count doesn’t have to be that precise. While this rhythm may be comfortable for many people, every person has to discover their own pace. Maybe counting to six is more comfortable, for example. Just learn to slowly inhale and then fully exhale what feels like a comfortable cleansing breath to you.

Avoid Taking Problems to Sleep With You

While this strategy is about distraction, it might be better to try not to take problems to bed in the first place. Consider releasing your thoughts and feelings actively before going to bed. Pray, talk it out, or write a list. Say to yourself, “I’m going to need to go to sleep soon. I need to get this stuff off my mind.” Then literally place those thoughts somewhere outside your body, so you don’t carry them to bed with you.

Practice, Practice

The 4-8 breathing technique is not just for when you’re trying to go to sleep. You can use it anytime to calm yourself. But it takes practice for techniques like this to be most effective.  Letting go of your thoughts and feelings takes work. No matter where you are, make a habit of going through the motions and using your breath to relax. The biology of what happens to your body will take over if you trust that it can work for you! 

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About Eden Pontz

Eden Pontz is Executive Producer and Director of Digital Content for CPTC. She oversees digital media content development and production for Parentandteen.com. She also writes, copyedits, and produces articles, podcasts, and videos for the site. Her pieces cover a range of topics including teen development, peer pressure, and mentoring. Eden brings years of experience as a former Executive Producer of Newsgathering at CNN, as well as a field producer, writer, and reporter for CNN and other news organizations.

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