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12 Thought and Relaxation Strategies to Help You Sleep

Stephanie-Abi-Zeid.
  • This article has been compiled, researched, and medically reviewed by Stephanie Abi Zeid (Embryologist, Andrologist, B.S, MSc) for factual accuracy.

Ever since being a young child, I’ve always had trouble getting to and staying asleep.

Later in my adult life, doctors diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder that’s directly tied to my ongoing battle with insomnia and issues with waking up too early.

Over the years, I’ve tried a countless array of supplements, medications, natural remedies, thought strategies, and relaxation techniques to try and help me to get to sleep faster – with hugely mixed results.

The most effective natural thought and relaxation techniques for getting to sleep that do not require medication or supplements include mindfulness meditation, the Jacobson Technique, binaural beats in the delta (1 to 4 Hz) range, reverse psychology, and mental imagery.

The rest of this article provides you with 12 non-medicinal thought and relaxation techniques that are backed by science and/or widely positive anecdotal reports for maximum effectiveness in combating insomnia.

Related: is your mattress stopping you from getting to sleep? See the most comfortable new mattresses to buy online in 2021 here.

12 Thought and Relaxation Strategies to Aid Sleep

Below are 12 techniques that you can try right now to help you get to sleep faster and combat insomnia and anxiety at night:

1: Replace Negative Worries With Positive Thoughts

If you want to get to sleep but your brain won’t stop talking to itself with negative thoughts and you’re unable to calm your anxious mind, then a very effective technique is to just replace the negative worries with positive thoughts.

Because whilst your mind may still be racing, switching out your worries for more pleasant thoughts can help to break the feedback loop that’s overstimulating your nervous system and causing stress hormones to be released into your body.

If you’re having real difficulty replacing your negative thoughts with positive ones, then watch the video below:

How to Replace Negative Thoughts | Brian Tracy

2: Lead With Positive Affirmations

If you naturally have an anxious and overactive mind that tends to focus on the negative, then repeating positive affirmations in the hour leading up to bedtime can help to set a positive frame of reference that will continue when you lie down.

Positive self-talk can help you to get to sleep by soothing your mind and reducing the impact that negative thoughts have on your psychological and physiological state.

In fact, a study conducted by Alex M.Wood (et. al) concluded that people who focus on their regrets before sleeping were found to take more time to get to sleep in comparison to subjects who focus on things they are grateful for before bedtime [1]. 

Therefore, always strive to talk to yourself in a positive way before bed (and when your head hits the pillow) to give your mind a positive foundation to work from and reduce the chance of your thoughts straying towards the negative.

If you have difficulty talking to yourself in a positive way or need some positive sleep affirmations, then put on your earphones and listen to the 1 hour of positive affirmations in the video below (it can also be used to start your day too when your body is still in theta state):

“It Goes Straight to Your Subconscious Mind” – “I AM” Affirmations For Success, Wealth & Happiness

3: Use Mental Image Distractions to Calm Your Mind

One strategy for stopping intrusive thoughts is to interrupt them using mental image distraction – a technique that reduces stress and prepares your body and mind to sleep.

The aim is to imagine something that makes you happy and engage all your senses so that it becomes impossible to think about other thoughts.  

Close your eyes and visualize a scenario that makes you happy – this could be a favorite activity, a relaxing vacation, a calm place, a favorite meal, or anything that allows you to focus on it with little effort and thus calm your mind.

4: Write Down Your Thoughts Before Bed to Ease Anxiety

Writing down your worries and negative thoughts before bed is a helpful way to let go of what keeps you awake at night. 

This exercise of expressing your thoughts on paper works very well if you have insomnia caused by anxiety because it allows you to ‘de-load’ before bed so that you’re not trying to remember lots of details or plan future events and then start worrying about forgetting anything.

Writing down your positive thoughts and journaling about happy events can also help in promoting sleep because it creates a positive frame of reference that underpins your night time routine.

Furthermore, a scientific study has shown that positive emotions enhance sleep time and quality [2]. 

Writing down your future plans or a to-do list is also an effective way of promoting sleep because it helps to clear your mind, reduces stress, and promotes more relaxation at bedtime.   

5: Read a Book to Stop Intrusive Thoughts

Reading a relaxing book is an effective way to distract your mind and help you wind down physically.

You may find it useful to read in a different room of the house until you feel sleepy – so that your brain doesn’t begin to associate being in bed with being awake.

However, if you do read in bed, then you should consider buying an adjustable bed because this will allow you to read in a position that’s comfortable for you and prevent straining your neck.

Avoid electronic books as they emit blue light, which reduces melatonin secretion and makes it harder for you to fall asleep.

Choose a physical book instead, and make sure that it’s not too exciting so that you won’t stay awake in suspense. 

6: Use Reverse Psychology to Relax

Trying too hard to get to sleep can cause anxiety and perpetuate insomnia.

Many psychologists claim that you can trick your brain into promoting sleep by using reverse psychology [3]. 

To use reverse psychology to get to sleep, keep your eyes wide open and remain passively awake to send a signal to your brain so that it paradoxically unwinds your body and makes you fall asleep.

7: Listen to Binaural Beats to Facilitate Deep Sleep

Binaural beats – where two tones that are slightly different in frequency are played with one frequency in each ear – in the delta (1 to 4 Hz), theta (4 to 8 Hz), and alpha frequencies (8 to 13 Hz), are best for promoting deep sleep, relaxation, and lowering anxiety [4].

Soothing sounds – like ocean waves, a crackling fireplace, chirping birds, or pouring rain – are often mixed with binaural beats to further help you create a mental state of relaxation and promote better sleep.  

Put in your earphones and press play on the video below for instant access to 8 hours of binaural beats in the 1-4 Hz delta wave range:

8 hours of 100% Pure 1-4 Hz Delta Waves For Sleep | Dancing Blue Stars

8: Use Autogenic Commands to Trigger Relaxation

Autogenic training is a desensitization-relaxation technique developed by the German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz that teaches your body to relax in response to verbal commands.

The aim is to draw out sensations of warmth and heaviness in different body parts, especially on your arms and legs to subsequently slow down your breathing, lower your blood pressure, and quiet your sleep-disrupting thoughts.    

If you’d like to use autogenic training commands to help you get to sleep then put in your earphones and listen to the video below:

Autogenic Training 1: Total Relaxation – Your First Step Into Deep Relaxation

9: Hack Your Sleep With Biofeedback Devices

Biofeedback uses devices and apps to help you become more aware of the systems in your body so that you can gain a sense of control over your body which in turn may help you to relax at night and get better sleep.

Biofeedback devices collect biological information about your body such as your heart rate, breathing patterns, body temperature, muscle contractions, and sleep phases.  

When you’re anxious and have trouble sleeping, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises, your muscles tighten, your breathing quickens, and you sweat more.

These body functions are controlled involuntarily by your nervous system – but you can try to stop them through biofeedback and relaxation training. 

So the aim of wearable trackers and biofeedback devices is to help you recognize the physiological changes and stress level that you experience at bedtime in order to take action and gain more control over your health and involuntary functions.

Tracking on its own can’t treat insomnia and other conditions related to stress, but it teaches you to be aware of stress signs and to eventually manage your emotions – helping you to control your body’s anxiety response mentally and physically. 

Eventually, you will be able to relax and sleep on your own without biofeedback devices.  

To get started with biofeedback, you can try the Spire Stone: Stress Management and Activity Tracker for iOS & Android.

10: Initiate Sleep Through Breathing Techniques

Breathing exercises are a great way to quiet your thoughts before bed and initiate the onset of sleep.

Slow and deep breathing can help to lower blood pressure, alleviate muscle tension, slow down heart rate, and ease the body into sleep. 

Here are 2 breathing techniques that you can use to initiate sleep:

4-7-8 Breathing

The “4-7-8” breathing method involves a specific breathing pattern that mimics the breathing pattern of sleep onset – the transition from wakefulness into sleep. 

To do 4-7-8 breathing:

  • Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds.
  • Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  • Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds.
  • Repeat this cycle several times. 

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is also a great method that releases tension and helps you fall asleep quicker.

To do diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Place one hand on your chest and the other one on your belly.
  • Feel your belly expand as you inhale through your nose, then push gently on your belly as you slowly exhale.
  • Repeat this exercise several times.

You can also visualize your breath as it passes through your nostrils and airways all the way to your belly – sensing the tension detach from your body as you exhale.   

11: Apply the Jacobson’s Technique to Relax Your Muscles

Progressive muscle relaxation (also known as the Jacobson’s Technique) is a type of therapy that focuses on tightening then relaxing specific muscles to help you release stress and easily fall asleep. 

To perform the Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation technique:

  • Choose a comfortable position and breathe in whilst tightening the muscles of your toes as strongly as you can for about 10 seconds.
  • Then relax those muscles as you breathe out.
  • Progressively work your way up your body – tensing the next set of muscle groups as you go.

The video below walks you through the process of progressive muscle relaxation in more detail:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Training

12: Stay Present and Relaxed With Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation can help you get a good night’s rest by keeping your focus on the present and away from future problems that may be causing stress.

To use mindfulness to help you get to sleep, start by observing your breathing and sensations in your body.

As your mind drifts away to another thought, simply observe your thoughts rather than trying to stop them.

Because trying to suppress your thoughts may work for a short period of time, but this usually causes them to bounce back harder (much like trying to force an inflatable beach ball deeper under water).

To try mindfulness meditation to get to sleep, put in your earphones and listen to the calming mindfulness meditation video below:

Calming Mindfulness Meditation before Sleeping (Spoken Guided Sleep Hypnosis) Let Go and Sleep Well

See Your Doctor if Your Insomnia Persists

Thought and relaxation strategies are an effective way to combat insomnia and anxiety naturally without having to rely upon medication.

You should pick one strategy from the list above and try it each night for a week before moving on to the next one if it’s not working – since trying too many techniques at once can create more stress and further hinder your sleep.

However, if you still can’t get to sleep even after having tried every one of the techniques listed above, then you should certainly see your doctor for professional guidance and advice.

Related: 6 ways to sleep after drinking an energy drink or too much caffeine.


Sources and References

[1] Wood, Alex. “Gratitude Influences Sleep Through the Mechanism of Pre-Sleep Cognitions.” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, vol. 66, no. 1, 2009, pp. 43-48. Science Direct, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022399908004224 Accessed 16 January 2021.

[2] Shen, Lin. “Positive and Negative Emotions: Differential Associations with Sleep Duration and Quality in Adolescents.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 47, 2018, pp. 2584–2595, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10964-018-0899-1 Accessed 16 January 2021.

[3] Young, Sarah. “How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep, According to a Psychologist.” Independent, 2017, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/better-night-sleep-how-tips-guide-temperature-alarm-clock-relax-nap-day-a8016851.html Accessed 16 January 2021.

[4] Cafasso, Jacquelyn. “Do Binaural Beats Have Health Benefits?” Healthline, 2018, https://www.healthline.com/health/binaural-beats Accessed 16 January 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

No part if this article or website is intended to replace advice from a qualified medical professional.

Image Licencing and Attribution

Main image: ‘Woman Sleeping Peacefully in Her Bedroom at Night Relaxing’ by Damir Khabirov (Getty Images Pro).

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