By Joanne Chen | Consumer Reports
If you can’t fall asleep because you’re playing back all the drama from earlier in the day, you are not alone. I’m right there with you, along with four in 10 Americans, according to a nationally representative survey of 2,084 U.S. adults, conducted by Consumer Reports in October 2022. In fact, at 42 percent, “thoughts running through my mind, keeping me awake” was the most common sleep challenge Americans said they had experienced over the past 12 months.
The truth is, it’s not enough to get yourself physically ready for sleep—you need to settle in mentally, too. No matter how well you wind down and cozy up in your sheets, your mind can take on a frenetic life of its own—rehashing cringey work conversations, freaking out over climate change, fretting over undone chores. Racing thoughts at night can create a hotbed of emotions that result in very physical repercussions.
When we’re anxious, our sympathetic nervous system activates the fight or flight response, says Maren Hyde-Nolan, PhD, a sleep psychologist at Henry Ford Health in Detroit. Our blood pressure rises; our heart rate quickens. Stress hormones course through our veins. How can anyone sleep with all this going on? In fact, it’s impossible. “You can’t simultaneously be anxious and calm your body down—and you can’t sleep when your body’s fight or flight response is activated,” says Hyde-Nolan.
Breathing Exercises to Calm Racing Thoughts
One important way to calm the racing thoughts in your brain is to focus on the body—specifically by slowing and lengthening your breath. You thereby temper the release of those stress-inducing hormones, so that the parasympathetic part of the nervous system can take hold, says Michelle Drerup, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at Cleveland Clinic. Your heart rate slows. Your blood pressure drops. As your body relaxes, your mind calms down, too, all of which help to ease your transition into sleep.
There is a range of breathing techniques to try, but the two below have worked particularly well for me when I can’t fall asleep. Practice them during the day so you feel more comfortable turning to them at night. Bonus: Beyond engaging the body, these exercises also give your mind something to focus on that’s much more tangible than imaginary sheep, as Drerup points out. And when a pesky thought intrudes? Briefly note it, and turn your attention back to your breath.
Box Breathing. Before you begin, exhale to let all the air out of your lungs. Now take in a slow breath through your nose (or whatever feels comfortable) for a count of four. Hold for a count four. Breathe out through your mouth for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of four. Repeat. Drerup suggests picturing a line slowly being drawn to form a square with each inhale, exhale, and hold—a tip I’ve found especially helpful.
The 4-7-8 Method. This is my favorite strategy—one that I turn to when I can’t sleep at 3 a.m. Breathe in for four counts. Hold for seven counts. Breathe out for eight counts. I inhale through my nose and exhale through my mouth, but experts say you should opt for the strategy that feels most comfortable for you.