Better Sleep in Less Than a Week: Day 5
Day 5 Lesson: Rest and Digest
Yesterday, we learned how to use our thoughts to change our emotions and behaviors — specifically, to improve our experience falling to sleep.
That was a “top-down” approach of using the mind to calm the body.
Today, we’ll try a “bottom-up” approach of using the body to calm the mind.
You’re likely familiar with “fight or flight,” a nervous system stress response in which our bodies respond to perceived threats in the environment. Did you know that there is a second branch of the autonomic nervous system that inhibits the fight or flight response? For our purposes here we will refer to it as “rest and digest.”
You can think of rest and digest as the opposite of fight or flight. Rest and digest is the part of your autonomic nervous system that’s in charge of calming things down. One of the coolest things about our bodies is that we can actively and intentionally induce rest and digest at will, pretty much anytime we want.
The more we actively practice inducing rest and digest, the easier it becomes to calm ourselves down, the calmer we are generally, and the easier it can be to fall asleep.
Day 5 Activities: Breathing, Relaxation, and Imagery
To get you out of your mind and into your body, we’ve got to get your eyes off of the screen — so today’s activities are audio-only exercises.
Grab your headphones, do what you can to carve out a few minutes of quiet space for yourself, and check out the three audio exercises below:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing (3 1/2 minutes)
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (8 minutes)
- Guided Imagery (6 minutes)
These techniques can be used in any order and at any time. You can incorporate them into your bedtime routine, or use them during the day to strengthen your body’s ability to switch on “rest and digest” mode.
Diaphragmatic Breathing — The healing power of a deep breath
Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the strongest tools in the relaxation toolkit.
This technique involves intentionally shifting the breath in order to activate the diaphragm — rather than relying on muscles of the chest, neck and upper back for breathing. The breath slows and becomes deeper, with a focus on the movement of the belly.
This relaxation technique has significant research supporting its efficacy in reducing stress, anxiety and negative thoughts, as well as increasing attention and concentration.
Scientists believe that diaphragmatic breathing increases blood oxygen levels and likely stimulates the vagus nerve (the major nerve that relays information from your organs back to your brain). Diaphragmatic breathing inhibits the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) branch of the autonomic nervous system, and activates the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”).
Once you are familiar with the movements and pace of this technique, you can practice it yourself anytime.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) — Releasing tension from your body
PMR is an empirically supported strategy for reducing stress and anxiety. It draws on principles of present moment awareness (mindfulness), intentional movement, and activation of proprioceptive stimulation.
With this technique, you follow a guided script that will take you through major muscle groups, bringing your awareness to each group, contracting specific muscles, and then releasing them.
While a brain-body split is somewhat of a false distinction, it might be helpful to think of PMR as telling yourself to chill out in two different ways at once:
- Your brain consciously tells your muscles when to contract and relax, and, in return,
- your body (and its major muscle groups, in this case) tells your brain that it is safe to do so.
PMR has both a robust and broad evidence base, demonstrating its utility in stress management, but also in chronic pain management, IBS, depression, PTSD, and more. PMR uses consciously-chosen body movements to promote physiological relaxation that can be measured and observed in real time.
PMR may be combined with diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery exercises, or used standalone.
Guided Imagery — Imagine a restful night’s sleep
This research-backed technique utilizes sensory-rich imagery to create feelings of calm, warmth, wellbeing, acceptance, and/or connection. It shows wonderful promise in self-forgiveness, and has been demonstrated to effectively reduce stress and anxiety. Guided imagery can include various themes, like nature, social interactions, pleasant environments, and so on. But the most important factor in whether this will be helpful is finding imagery that is meaningful to you personally. In creating mental representations of pleasant experiences, we can allow our bodies to feel as if these things are happening. Our bodies then respond to the safety of those representations with measurable physiological shifts in breathing and heart rate.