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Breathe for Sleep

May 28, 2023
 

It’s yet another sleepless night. As you lie there, desperately trying to sleep, you decide to do some deep cadence breathing, maybe a 4-7-8 breath. After all, everyone on YouTube says it is the best way to breathe for sleep/ relaxation and YouTube is never wrong right???

Can You Breathe Yourself to Sleep?

The problem is you don’t feel more relaxed or sleepy in fact, if anything, you feel more and more awake, tense, and a bit pissed off to be frank. What is going on? You are breathing exactly as you were told to. Why does this stupid breath stuff never actually work???

If this is how you feel, then believe me I have been there. When I was in the depths of my insomnia, I felt like I was trying EVERYTHING, and nothing was helping….

This was around the time that I became very interested in the vagus nerve, and vagal toning exercises (a la Suzie Baxter). They sounded like a great solution to me. I intuitively knew that my insomnia was stress based and I was stuck in a fight or flight response, so rebalancing and soothing the nervous system seemed logical.

I began doing all of Suzie’s exercises and I did see some difference. Initially I slept GREAT (for me) after practicing them in the morning, but it didn’t work every day, so I figured “hey, if some is good more is better right?”

I began searching for other vagal exercises I could do and to my disappointment most of what I could find related to breathing. “For god’s sake, I’m so sick of people going on and on about breathing. I breathe constantly and I still don't sleep!” (Thought my uninformed self)

Breathing for Sleep: It's All About Intention

What I didn’t understand at the time was that it’s not just about the act of breathing it’s HOW you breathe. Anyone can practice unmindful, cadence breathing (also referred to lazy mammal breathing by one of my instructors).

It’s very easy to passively follow along to the tones of some YouTube video while worrying about sleep, life, relationships etc.  (insert troubled thought here).

What is of vital importance (and not often mentioned) is How you breathe. Is it mindful? Are you feeling into your body? What is your intention while breathing?

I can almost guarantee you if you are desperately forcing yourself to take “calming” breaths, all the while ruminating about how tired you are and how you NEED to sleep or you will feel like crap tomorrow, lose your job and die a horrible early death from some disease that was entirely preventable if YOU COULD JUST SLEEP  (because people who sleep 8 hrs live forever right?) then you almost certainly WILL NOT sleep and you will learn to hate breathing in the process.

I always tell clients, breathing for sleep is like lifting weights to build muscle. It DOES work (anyone who says it doesn’t likely is not a trained breath instructor and is therefore missing vital information) but it takes TIME and there is no 1 to 1 association. 

Adding in stress and pushing for quick results will only get in your way and delay sleep even more.

Forget Your Short Term Goals

Breathing is a way to calm the nervous system and restructure our set point over the long term. As such, it is best to treat breathwork as long-term maintenance for the nervous system (akin to brushing your teeth to prevent cavities).  Therefore, I always recommend doing it throughout the day or away from bedtime initially, it should be treated as a life practice and not a short term, instantaneous insomnia solution.

Remember, the intention of breathwork should always be relaxation, compassion, and mental health, never to sleep!

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