What Are the Best Breathing Techniques for Sleep?

By: SleepScore Labs  |  May 29th, 2018

What Are the Best Breathing Techniques for Sleep? 

While we all breathe thousands of times per day without a second thought, the positive impact that comes with taking deep, conscious breaths is stronger than you think. The beneficial health effects of deliberate deep breathing are well known in medicine, psychology, and sleep science.  

You may be experiencing sleep problems due to a variety of factors. Anything from medical conditions to simply not practicing healthy sleep hygiene habits could be to blame. Let’s not forget that as we go through life we age, we feel stress, we change living environments, and we pick up new habits; all of which can contribute to sleep problems in the long term. 

Breathing techniques can be a simple yet powerful tool to help you relax, find your center, regain balance, and ultimately improve your life and your sleep. 

Dr. Sharon Danoff-Burg, a clinical psychologist and Senior Research Scientist at SleepScore Labs, explains, “When we feel stressed or anxious, we tend to take shallow breaths in the upper chest instead of breathing deeply using the full capacity of our lungs. We might tighten up our muscles, start breathing in irregular patterns, take rapid breaths, or even hold our breath without realizing it. The good news is this can be changed with practice, so we feel better and sleep better.”  

Breathing exercises are a type of relaxation technique that help promote relaxation, improve mood, support mindfulness, and reduce stress levels. Additionally, breathing exercises may help reduce the tension that can interfere with sleep, including trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.   

7 Breathing Exercises for Sleep 

Do you find it hard to fall asleep after a hectic day? Even when loosened up and ready to sleep, do you struggle with getting your eyes shut? If this is you, breathing exercises may help you relax and fall asleep more quickly. This practice can be as simple as taking slow, deep breaths, making sure to spend plenty of time on the exhalation. However, many people find it easiest to follow a structured breathing exercise that includes counting or other guidance. 

Here are 7 breathing techniques that may support healthy sleep. Give them a try to discover which feels best for you. If at any point you start to feel lightheaded or uncomfortable, return your breathing back to what feels normal and restful.  

1. Counting Breaths 

Counting breaths is a very simple breathing exercise in which you count your breaths as you gently inhale through your nose and slowly exhale through your mouth. You can repeat this until you fall asleep. 

Studies suggest that this breathing exercise may improve mood, help you feel grounded, and keep your mind focused and at rest.  

Here are the steps: 

  • Breathe in and count the number “one” as you slowly exhale. 
  • Breathe in again and count the number “two” as you slowly exhale. 
  • Repeat through the fifth round. 
  • Then start a new cycle, counting every slow exhalation from 1 to 5. 
  • Repeat until you start dozing off.

2. Diaphragmatic Breathing  

Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown in numerous studies to promote relaxation, decrease stress, and provide overall benefit to physical, mental, and emotional health.  

The diaphragmatic breathing technique is also called belly breathing or deep breathing. The name refers to engaging the diaphragm, which is the central respiratory muscle that sits below the lungs between the chest and abdomen.   

In this breathing exercise, you practice breathing deeply by paying attention to breathing in and out without your upper chest moving much. Some people even place a book on their chest while practicing. It might sound hard, but this is the way babies breathe naturally, so your body already knows how to do it.   

Here are the steps: 

  • Lie on your back, bend your knees over a pillow, or sit in a chair. 
  • Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. 
  • Take deep inhalations through your nose and slow exhalations through your mouth.. 
  • Let the hand on your chest and the hand on your belly remain there as you focus on your breaths. 
  • As you exhale, try to allow your chest to remain quite still, while your belly rises and falls with the pattern of your breathing. To help do this, try imagining a balloon in your belly that slowly expands as you inhale and slowly deflates as you exhale.  
  • Visualize your breath moving through your body. As you repeat the breaths, feel the stress leaving your body as you exhale. Enjoy the feeling of relaxation that comes with letting go of that tension as you breathe out. 

3. Box Breathing 

Box breathing, also called four-square or square breathing, is an equal-ratio yogic breathing exercise that can help you feel grounded, release stress from your body, and help you feel calm. A study in India found that this breathing technique helped new mothers feel relief from physical pain. 

Here are the steps: 

  • Sit upright or lie down. 
  • Slowly inhale through your nose as you count to 4, feeling the air fill your lungs.  
  • Retain the inhale (gently hold your breath) as you count to 4, without tightening your chest. 
  • Slowly exhale as you count to 4, feeling your chest and belly soften.  
  • Retain the exhale (gently pause your breath) as you count to 4. 
  • Repeat the process until you feel relaxed and centered.  

4. 4-4-8 or 4-7-8 Breathing  

These techniques refer to how long to inhale, hold, and exhale each breath. Done lying down, sitting, or standing, the 4-4-8 technique or the 4-7-8 technique can help you relax. The authors of a study on 4-7-8 breathing noted that it activates the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest, digest, and recovery part of the nervous system), slowing down the heart rate, breathing rate, and promoting relaxation. These mechanisms can support a refreshing night’s rest. 

Here are the steps: 

  • Inhale deeply and slowly from your abdomen while counting to 4 as you breathe in. 
  • Pause your breath, gently holding it while counting either from 1 to 4 or from 1 to 7. Do whichever count feels best for you. 
  • Exhale slowly while counting from 1 to 8. Rid all air from the lungs by the time you count to 8. 
  • Repeat these steps for as many repetitions as you would like. 
  • Enjoy the calming effects of the mind and body. 

5. Roll Breathing 

Roll breathing is a variation on diaphragmatic breathing, discussed earlier. The  aim is to become familiar with the rhythm of your breathing and use your total lung capacity as you inhale and exhale. It’s recommended to practice this first, lying on your back with your knees bent until you get the knack. From there, it’s doable in other positions, anytime you need to relax. 

Here are the steps: 

  • Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. Focus on the movement your hands encounter with each breath. 
  • Focus on inhaling deeply to fill your lower lungs, so the belly rises while the chest does not. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Keep your shoulders relaxed.  
  • After 8 to 10 repetitions, move to the next step by continuing to inhale first into your lower lungs, and then inhale into your upper chest. 
  • While exhaling slowly through your mouth, try to create a whooshing sound. The hand on your stomach will lower first, followed by the hand on your chest. With each repetition, focus on tension escaping your body. 
  • Continue this for 3 to 5 minutes until you establish a rhythm that feels like the action of rolling waves as you feel the sensations of relaxation. 

6. Bhramari Pranayama  

Bhramari pranayama is another breathing exercise that may help you relax and fall asleep. There are different variations of this ancient practice. One study by researchers in Nepal found that just 5 minutes of this practice lowered blood pressure and heart rate.  

Here are the steps: 

  • Sit in a comfortable position, with your back tall and your shoulders relaxed. 
  • Close your eyes. 
  • Place your thumbs on your cheeks by your ears, and rest your ring fingers and middle fingers on your eyes, gently.  
  • Breathe in and out through your nose with your mouth slightly open and jaw relaxed. 
  • As you exhale, make a humming or buzzing sound. Bhramari is the Sanskrit word for bee. Let the sound last for as long as is comfortable.  
  • Practice for as long as you like, and then notice any changes in your mood or in your body. 

7. Morning Breathing 

After a lovely night of sleep, kick-start your body with a boost of oxygen and a mindful breathing exercise to open air passages and clear the morning fog. Researchers in China have used morning breathing exercises to help people with lung cancer. As with most relaxation techniques, there are different variations on how to do it. Over time, you will figure out what works best for you. 

Here are the steps: 

  • While standing, lean forward from the waist. Keep your knees slightly bent. Allow your arms to hang down toward the floor. 
  • Take a slow, deep breath in, while gently straightening your back until you are standing up tall. 
  • In this standing position, hold your breath for a few moments. 
  • Exhale the breath slowly, deliberately, and gently while leaning forward to the original starting position. 
  • Repeat this procedure a few times until you feel relaxed, recharged, and ready to take on your day. 

Wrapping Up

Carving out a few minutes each day to practice any one of these breathing techniques can help restore your energy, relax the body and mind, and provide a peace-inducing return to a centered and wholesome state.  

These techniques may help you get consistent recovery sleep and support your sleep health. Give them a try and see how they help you, day or night!  


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