Breathing and sleeping are two things we somehow make worse the more we think about them. While just about everyone has had a restless night, those who suffer from more troublesome forms of insomnia know what a miserable experience it is. As someone who suffered from untreatable primary insomnia for over two decades, I remember the feeling vividly.
A lack of sleep affects nearly every part of your life, and yet there’s no easy way to diagnose or treat insomnia. Even worse, doctors often don’t take it seriously, and since it’s a disorder and not a disease, there’s no straightforward way to deal with insomnia in the biomedical paradigm. Meanwhile, 37 percent of adults reportedly suffer from sleep disruption of some sort at least three days per week—whether it’s difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep or feeling like they didn’t get quality sleep.
We know insomnia can be caused by stress, anxiety (chronic and acute), travel, diet, exercise, poor sleep hygiene, and other medical conditions. Pharmaceutical interventions work for some, but not for long. Calming your mind requires something more complex than even the most advanced chemistry can provide.
Breathing: It’s Harder Than You Think
I know what you’re thinking. And being advised to “try some meditation/deep breathing/melatonin” is, at best, insulting when you’re truly suffering from insomnia. But hear me out, because this isn’t an easy intervention.
If you’ve ever tried a breathing exercise, you know that it can be hard at first, which seems silly since we breathe all day long without thinking about it. But being aware of your breath makes it all feel rather unnatural. Like most things, you need to work on it to get better—breathing is a necessity, sure, but it’s also a skill.
The first time I ever tried rhythmic breathing, the big, slow, deep breaths that filled my lungs felt like something totally foreign. Paying attention to inhales and exhales put me in a place of deep discomfort. I didn’t like focusing on them, and counting the seconds felt forced. Suddenly, I felt like I wasn’t getting enough air despite all that oxygen. I yawned, my heart pounded harder, and I got anxious.
Yet, like any skill, you have to practice it to get better. You might even get worse at it before you get better. But it’s worth it.
Breathwork is an ancient practice, but it came to the West (and was transformed by it) in the 1960s. It came up via the yogic practice of pranayama, but in true 21st-century fashion, we’ve managed to turn breathing into a trend. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, Breathe Well, The Power of Breathwork, The Breathing Book, Breathing for Warriors, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, and Exhale are some of the books published over the last year on the power of breathing on the body and mind.
People come to breathwork for a number of reasons, including trauma healing, yoga training, stress reduction, and, of course, insomnia. Breathing in a conscious, systematic way has been shown in many (but not all) studies to be beneficial. Once you learn to do it, it can slow down a racing heart, put you in a more serene mood, take you out of your panic zone, make you forget about stressful situations (or at least set them aside), help lower your blood pressure, and just relax you in general. All of these things are integral to sleep.
But you have to put in the work. It sounds silly, but hardly anyone is good at breathwork when they first try it. If you don’t give up on it after a few rough days or weeks, it can become part of your toolkit to help get a good night’s sleep. While I’m proud of the progress I’ve made with my breathwork practice, it took me three whole weeks just to feel comfortable breathing purposefully. Once again, it was worth it.
Breathwork for Better Sleep
There are many kinds of breathing exercises (and many measurements of sleep). But getting into the habit of pausing and noticing your breath is a powerful tool, and it’s one you can practice as part of your nighttime ritual or if you wake up in the middle of the night. Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing doesn’t have to be formal, but there are a few specific types of breathwork that you can use to practice better breathing. These should be done in rounds of five to nine repetitions, after which you concentrate on how your body feels as you breathe normally.
- Diaphragmatic breathing. You may hear this referred to as “belly breathing,” and it can be done lying down with a pillow under your knees or sitting up comfortably. Put one hand on your chest and the other underneath your rib cage as you inhale slowly through your nose, feeling it pass into your lungs and down into your lower belly. Feel your hand move as your belly expands with air and then falls when you exhale through pursed lips. Try to keep your mind on your breath as it moves through your body and just bring it back to your practice if it wanders.
- 4-7-8 technique. It’s nice to have instructions when you begin a new practice, but I’ve noticed that these numbers don’t always work for me, so note that you can shave or add a second here or there depending on your needs. Begin by releasing the breath in your lungs by exhaling through your mouth. From there, it’s as easy as it sounds—inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds through pursed lips.
- Bhramari pranayama. This is also called “bumblebee breath” because it makes some noise. You may feel silly doing it, but it’s designed to induce calm and reduce anger. Sit up straight and try to put a small smile on your face. Then, place your index finger gently on the bit of outer-ear cartilage near your upper jaw (called the tragus). Inhale deeply and slowly, then gently press the tragus to block out sound and exhale making a humming sound (like a bee) until you’ve comfortably exhaled. (Be sure to wash your hands before touching your face!)
- Alternate nostril breathing. It’s not rocket science, but this one may be difficult if you suffer from chronic congestion. The good news is that the more you practice, the more it may help with that problem as well as with sleep. Sit up straight and relax your shoulders to feel your heart open. Relax your left hand in your lap while bringing your right hand up to your face, bringing your pointer finger and middle finger to rest between your eyebrows. Close your eyes and press your right nostril closed with your right thumb. Inhale through the left nostril slowly and steadily. Then close your left nostril with your ring finger so both nostrils are closed, and hold your breath for a moment. On the exhale, you’ll open your right nostril while releasing your breath slowly through it. Pause again, and switch sides.
- Box breathing. Also called “square breathing,” this one is a perennial favorite and famous for being taught to Navy SEALs to help them maintain calm and induce sleep. Sit with your legs crossed (if you can) and relax your hands in your lap with your palms up. Push all the oxygen out of your lungs while bringing your attention to your body and breath. Inhale slowly through your nose to the count of four until you feel your abdomen expand. Imagine the air filling your lungs from top to bottom. Then exhale slowly through your mouth (you can purse your lips and make some noise) and imagine the air leaving your lungs, taking internal stress with it. Finally, hold your breath for a count of four.
Practice What Works for You
We don’t currently have any studies that show one type of breathwork is superior to another, but it’s less about the details and more about the effort anyway. Do what works for you. You can even download apps or find a YouTube video to help you along the way.
It’s important to remember that breathwork doesn’t always come naturally. And if you only use it in an emergency, you might have a hard time mastering the skill—and that makes it easy to give up on.
While a few deep breaths won’t necessarily lull you into a slumber if you have other physical, emotional, or spiritual issues to deal with, it will give you a feeling of power over your body and mind when little else feels under your control.