Welcome back to the Can’t Sleep Chronicles, a series in which I attempt to get over my bad bouts of insomnia with a different technique each month.
I have chronic insomnia, but it’s mostly under control thanks to lifestyle changes. I still get a bout once or twice a month for 3-4 days at a time, and it’s brutal. As any insomnia sufferer knows, it’s not just about difficulty sleeping – you’re also lethargic, moody, and pretty disagreeable. Insomnia messes with your entire life.
I’ve been dog-paddling my way through a particularly vicious stint this week, thanks to starting grad school during COVID while maintaining a full time workload. It’s a lot of new stress, and a lot of time on a screen (reading and writing and three-hour classes, oh my!). Instead of succumbing to the ease of the medicine cabinet, I tried several relaxation techniques to calm my nerves, clear my head, unclench my jaw, and fall asleep at a reasonable hour.
1. Breathing exercises
Anecdotal: I tried the 4 7 8 breathing method, where you inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath at the top for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds while making a whooshing sound. While it was relaxing for a minute or two, it didn’t do me any good. Breathing exercises are, for me, a lot like counting sheep. If I’m trying to fall asleep with my mind racing, I need something much more robust than focused breathing to keep my attention away from my anxious thoughts.
Data: Limited science; most evidence is anecdotal. There is, however, a 2013 study that found Alternate Nostril Breathing (not what I did! Whoops!) influences the parasympathetic nervous system (which, essentially, chills you out). So, again, helps with relaxation, but not necessarily falling asleep.
2. Guided sleep meditations
Anecdotal: Not to be confused with sleep meditation, which is a state when the body is totally relaxed and mentally unaware, which is supposed to make your conscious mind totally alert. That’s not what I did… at all. A guided sleep meditation (at least the one I did on the Slumber app), is explained by the app as “meditations designed specifically to facilitate relaxation and sleep.” I did a 40 minute “Total Relaxation” sleep meditation, which consisted of a man with a very calm and pleasant voice, slowly guiding me on a long visualisation that was meant to put me to sleep. AND IT WORKED! I’m not sure if it was the actual content or the atmospheric nature of the narrator’s voice, but I was out before the end of it, which is a huge win.
Data: Not much data here, either. The best I’ve got is a 2015 study which found that guided sleep meditations improved sleep better than ‘sleep hygiene intervention’ (changing your sleep habits) in people 50 years of age and over. So that’s pretty cool! But I wouldn’t bet money on the science here.
3. Binaural beats
This is by far the most "trendy" relaxation technique I’ve tried, and (spoiler alert) my least favorite of the bunch. If you don’t know, binaural beats are these ‘auditory illusions’ created by beats of a different frequency designed to be listened to separately (one in each ear). The supposed result is that they deliver the same benefits as meditation, but much faster. I can’t say I really understand it, but I tried it out anyway.
Anecdotal: I didn’t like it for a few reasons, the main being that it requires wearing headphones to bed which isn’t comfortable (or safe, really). I also found that it made me feel very unbalanced, which made me anxious. And when I wasn’t anxious, I was bored.
Data: Small studies abound! The findings don’t necessarily point to binaural beats specifically, as helping you calm down, but the data does provide evidence of the benefits of auditory illusions in general. A range of benefits were found, from overall mood improvement to the decreased anxiety. However, nothing specific to falling asleep… again!
Anecdotal: It just doesn’t work for me. It’s nice! But doesn’t put me to sleep. I mixed clary sage, lavender, and ylang-ylang essential oils, all touted for their anxiety-relieving and calming properties. It smelled great, a lot better than I thought it would. Mixed the oils in a homemade reed diffuser and put it right on my nightstand. One hour went by, then two, then three. Still wide awake.
Data: While a lot of the science out there backs up the claim that aromatherapy with certain essential oils can be helpful with alleviating anxiety, there’s not much proof that they can relax you into sleep. Studies have found that clary sage and lavender both lowered blood pressure and respiratory rate in certain patients, while a study of the effects of ylang ylang essential oil found that the herb both lowered blood pressure and resulted in a calm and relaxed effect. So, while aromatherapy is good for a massage or a meditation, it probably won’t put you to sleep.
5. A long soak
Anecdotal: I take baths every night in order to combat my chronic insomnia. Other than diet and exercise, it’s the best and most effective change I’ve made. Long hot baths make me feel relaxed, give me alone time, and make me very sleepy. During this past insomnia bout, I climbed in the tub at 3 in the morning after tossing and turning, and stayed in the bath for 45 minutes. I crawled back into bed and passed out immediately.
Data: Finally some data that links a relaxation technique directly to sleep! A 2006 meta study looked at 5 thousand previous studies from several databases. The researchers then analysed the effects and published their findings in Sleep Medicine Reviews.
I discussed this in a past article, but taking a hot bath an hour or two before bed lowers your body’s core temperature (since all the warmth shoots to the feet and hands), which your body needs to do before falling and staying asleep. Essentially, taking a hot bath gives you a head start. Not only does it help you fall asleep, a hot bath helps your overall sleep quality. Science!
There you have it. Relaxation techniques ended up being a bit of a let down for me, but if you’re experiencing acute insomnia from stress, they might be a better help to you!