The outcome surprised even me.
Credit: Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury

If there’s one thing I’m sure we can all agree on, it’s that nothing beats a solid night’s sleep—but when your mind decides to scroll through every mistake you’ve ever made (or the ones you think you’re about to) as soon as your head hits the pillow, getting off the anxiety train long enough to score quality shuteye is no easy task. And it seems like the harder you try to fall asleep, the less likely it is to happen. Sigh.

Many people probably have a few tried-and-true techniques they use to fall asleep when the going gets tough, I’m just not one of them. I tried the soothing tea thing, but the only part of me that enjoyed it was my bladder. I tried meditation, but my brain was all, “You’re kidding, right?” I also tried melatonin, but it had this way of kicking in exactly when I didn’t want it to—like after my alarm went off.

After a lifetime of chronic anxiety, though, I can’t say I’m surprised that these techniques didn’t work, even after a diligent amount of effort. They did help to soothe the physical symptoms of anxiety I experience, like muscle tension and heart palpitations, but it wasn’t long before my brain would rev my body back up again with its incessant need to anticipate every catastrophic outcome that could happen the following day.

I needed to establish a sleep habit that could sedate both my body and brain with minimal effort (to minimize my chances of not following through)—and since breathing exercises are about as minimal as it gets, I decided to give them a whirl.

How Breathing Exercises Can Help You Sleep Better

Breathing exercises can help you fall asleep faster through two main mechanisms: “First, they calm the central nervous system,” says Sari Chait, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and owner of the Behavioral Health and Wellness Center in Newton, Massachusetts. “The slow, deep breathing lets your brain know that it’s time to calm down, and this leads to an all-over slowing.” Your heart rate and breathing slow and your blood pressure may drop, all as part of the relaxation process.

Deep breathing can also serve as a mindfulness practice, adds Chait. If you’re focused on your breathing, you’re no longer being distracted by your brain’s cruel habit of, well, not zipping it when you need it to. (Sign me up.)

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Here’s What Happened When I Tried Breathing Exercises to Sleep Better

I’ve tried breathing exercises before—specifically, ones where you focus on the act of breathing itself—but they don’t seem to occupy my mind enough, so the effects are minimal. It was recently recommended that I try Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique instead, where you inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for seven, exhale for eight, and repeat the sequence three times. That way, my mind is focused on counting reps instead of its usual mental debauchery, giving my nervous system the opportunity to simmer down.

Like establishing any new habit, the first week was more about getting into the practice, and less about the results. “Often, people don’t practice breathing exercises and then try to use them when they’re feeling anxious or have trouble sleeping,” says Chait. “When that happens, they don’t find them useful.”

Practicing breathing exercises daily is the best way to ensure they work, since you need to put in the time to get really good at it. During week one, I didn’t get to sleep any faster following the breathing exercises, but my body did feel way less stormy. This allowed me to cut back on the exorbitant amount of time I usually need to unwind before bed—and made for a small step in the right direction.

Going into week two, I was already in a groove: I no longer had to remind myself to do the breathing exercises, and I did feel like falling asleep was becoming less of a grind. Of course, “these breathing techniques cannot override many other areas of sleep hygiene that contribute to sleep,” says Rebecca Spencer, PhD, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

In my case, working chaotic hours, drinking coffee way too late into the day, knocking back beer too close to bedtime (in a lame attempt to counteract the coffee), and not sticking to a consistent sleep schedule are all things that breathing exercises can only do so much to counteract. It’s not that I haven’t tried to tackle these issues in the past, but after dozens (okay, hundreds) of failed attempts at making improvements, I started losing confidence in my ability to make even the easiest of sleep habits stick.

Nearing the end of this two-week experiment, on average I was falling asleep in under 30 minutes, which is a huge milestone for me. Plus, on nights when I woke up at 3 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep, the breathing exercises acted as my return ticket to snoozeville. (And successfully replaced my usual way of coping: hating the universe with a side of ugly crying.)

But even if I hadn’t noticed a marked difference in sleep quantity or quality by the end of this experiment, the act of sticking to it gave me back some of the confidence I’d lost following my last string of failed attempts at healthier sleep hygiene. I’m not sure which sleep habit I’ll attempt to improve next, but no matter how well it goes (or doesn’t), some improvement, however minuscule, is always better than none.