Is there a way to overcome your sleep problems that is natural and effective and doesn’t jeopardize your health? The answer to this question is yes! It’s entirely possible to solve sleep problems with mindful breathing as the main instrument. By incorporating mindful breathing exercises both during the day and just before bedtime, you can make it easier for you to rest in a natural, effective, and healthy way.
What are the benefits of mindful breathing for sleep?
Mindful breathing promotes sleep through a variety of mechanisms, but if we sum it up, we can understand mindful breathing as a way to calm our entire physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual body. This promotes an overall sense of balance that is conducive to healthy sleep.
However, talking about the benefits of mindful breathing is the easy part. What most people struggle with is the question of how to get going in regular mindful breathing practice, and how to do it correctly. Because the wrong breathing technique can cause exactly the opposite and increases your arousal levels.
How to get started with mindful breathing?
The most basic way to get started with mindful breathing is to focus your attention on your inhale and exhale. Feel it flow through you—in and out. Keep the flow natural. Follow it from your nostrils to your throat and chest and your belly.
This simple thing, paying attention to your inhale and exhale, can be surprisingly hard, even for longtime practitioners. If your mind starts to wander, remember that’s natural. Perhaps a specific thought captures your attention and carries you away so that you lose track of the exercise.
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The moment you realize that you got carried away, take a second to notice what has distracted you, and then gently refocus on your breathing. Don’t judge yourself for being “not good at it.”
By regularly practicing this breathing technique, you will learn three critical skills:
- how to let your thoughts come and go, without focusing on them,
- how to recognize when you’ve been carried away by your thoughts, and
- how to refocus your attention.
So, let’s take a deep breath and get going … but wait –
“Take a deep breath” – what does it actually mean?
With increasing stress, many of us have forgotten how deep we can breathe. We are chest breathers who make shorter and faster breaths by drawing the breath through the chest area into our lungs. The problem with this type of chest-only-breathing is that when we deepen it, we promote the body’s fight-or-flight mode and the associated feelings of stress. Instead of putting us into a more relaxed sleep-promoting state, it brings us back into an aroused state.
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On the other hand, abdominal breathers use their diaphragmatic muscles to suck in breath by expanding through the abdomen. When the diaphragm is used in breathing, the stomach rises and falls with the chest and abdomen. When the air reaches the deeper part of the lungs, you get up to 10 times more air with each breath, helping you relieve stress and relax your body.
Diaphragmatic breathing – how to do it properly?
Diaphragmatic breathing, or ‘belly breathing,’ is actually the body’s natural way of breathing. All newborns breathe this way. But for some reason, as we get older, we start breathing high up in the chest, which is physically less efficient and leads to a more anxious state of mind.
If you haven’t previously practiced diaphragmatic breathing, here’s how it works:
- Resting on your back, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
- Take a few normal breaths to observe which part of the body is rising and falling with each breath. Is most of the movement happening in the hand resting on your chest or in the one on your belly?
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. The air entering your nose should move downwards so that you can feel your stomach rising. Don’t force or push your lower abdomen outwards by squeezing your muscles together.
- When your belly feels about 80% full, pause for about 3 seconds.
- Then, even more slowly breathe out, let your belly relax. You should feel the hand that is above it fall inwards (towards the spine). Don’t push your stomach inwards by squeezing your muscles.
- Let your breath come back to its natural depth and pace. Notice the state of your mind and body after having practiced this breathing exercise.
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When you try diaphragmatic breathing for the first time, it may feel strange and uncomfortable. That’s okay, with a little practice you’ll get used to it. Begin practicing belly breathing only for a minute or two at a time. As soon as you feel comfortable, you can extend the duration of your sessions by a few minutes.
Can mindful breathing help with panic attacks at night?
You’re in bed, and you’re feeling like being in a nightmare where something terrible is going to happen. At first, you may get dizzy and lightheaded. Your heart starts beating like crazy, and you’re sure you’ll faint or have a heart attack. So you try to get some air. But you can’t breathe properly. It’s almost like you’re suffocating…
Panic attacks can feel different for different people and largely depend on your personal experience. But many people experience symptoms like rapid heart rate, chest pain, dizziness, headache, sweating, shaking, fear of fainting or dying or going crazy, and a frightening feeling of not being able to breathe.
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A significant part of the problem is rapid, shallow breathing, also known as “hyperventilation.” Whenever we feel stressed, excited, angry, or anxious, our breathing rate increases. This is part of the fight or flight response. Through the increased breathing rate, we receive more oxygen in our blood, which helps us prepare for either fight or flight.
But this changes the level of gases in our bloodstream, which leads to a chemical imbalance in the body. And this imbalance triggers a whole range of physical changes in the body, including an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and increased muscle tension.
Slow, deep abdominal breathing reduces tension in your body
If your chest is tight and you feel like you are not getting enough air, then the problem is often the following: you’re breathing so fast that you’re not giving your lungs a chance to empty. If you don’t empty your lungs, you cannot breathe properly because you are trying to suck air into a room that is already mostly full.
And that’s where practicing slow, deep belly breathing can help when you’re stressed and panicked. By starting to breathe slowly into your belly, you will reduce the tension level in your body.
So the first thing you have to do is exhale fully and completely, emptying your lungs as much as possible. And the slower you can take these breaths, the better because you are helping to balance the gases in your bloodstream.
Try breath counting meditation when you can’t sleep
When I can’t sleep, I often combine diaphragmatic breathing with simple breath counting meditation. The counting helps me to stay focused on my breath. Here’s how it works:
- Start abdominal breathing and inhale, hold it for 3 seconds.
- Slowly exhale and, at the very end of your exhalation, count “one” in your mind.
- Inhale again, pause, exhale and, at the end of the exhalation, mentally count “two.”
- At the end of each exhalation, continue counting in this way until you have reached “Ten.”
- Then start counting backward – nine, eight, seven, six, etc. – until you get to one.
- If due to random thoughts, you forget which number you are on, just start counting backward from “one” again.
Keep in mind that the goal of mindful breathing exercises is not to get rid of any unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or urges. But they can help you better regulate your reaction to feelings of anxiety, restlessness, and fatigue. The immediate benefit of this approach is that it reduces stress and will save you a lot of energy. In the long run, it paves the way back to restful sleep.
Start small, but be consistent
Start practicing mindfulness breathing only for a few minutes a day until it becomes a habit. The key is to find a schedule that works for you without it feeling like a chore – no matter how long or short it is – and to be consistent. Consistency is more important than time. Even with a one or two-minute mindfulness breathing practice every day, you can begin to enjoy the benefits.
One thing mindfulness teaches is patience, but you will only find that out if you have a little patience for yourself in the beginning. Let go of your expectations and become curious about the process rather than being frustrated that you haven’t yet reached an unrealistic goal.
For most of us, becoming more mindful is like learning a new skill, and that takes some time. I know that it’s difficult to be patient when you can’t sleep and feel exhausted. It’s probably the hardest thing. If thoughts like “It’s useless; I won’t sleep anyway” or feelings of impatience, frustration, or boredom show up, again just notice these.
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For instance, you can say to yourself, “I’m having the thought that I won’t sleep anyway” or “I’m having the feeling of frustration.” Inserting these little phrases creates distance between you and your thoughts and feelings so that they have less impact on you.
Don’t try to clear your mind
This is probably the most misunderstood myth of any mindfulness practice, including mindfulness breathing. The goal is not to clear your mind; that would be impossible because the human mind is naturally focused on things.
If you have found that your mind is overactive and races from one thought to another while doing mindfulness breathing, it doesn’t mean that you should scold yourself, only that you are human. Calming, relaxing, and clearing the mind are all nice benefits that a mindfulness breathing practice can bring. But to clear it completely? It’s impossible!
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So mind wandering is allowed; it’s even an essential part of the process. Your mind will wander to a word, image, sound, or memory that distracts you for a short time. When this happens, recognize your distraction with a friendly greeting like “Hello, Thought” or “Thank you, Mind” and then gently let it go it by bringing your awareness back into your mindfulness practice (e.g., to your breath).
Remember, the goal with any mindfulness practice, including mindful breathing, is to maintain a gentle relationship with what’s showing up in your mind and body in the middle of the night, even if it feels unpleasant.
So pay attention to the sensations that arise in your body and the thoughts that appear in your mind without judging them. Don’t suppress your thoughts and feelings, only notice them and let them be.