The art of mindfulness to help with sleep

Stress and anxiety are usually the key reasons people struggle to sleep. The fact that you can’t sleep also adds to the stress and anxiety as the night progresses, and you begin to worry about how you will feel the following day.

Common symptoms of these feelings include:

Not being able to switch off your busy mind.

You keep going over and over your stresses, worries, and frustrations, contemplating them from various angles. It’s almost like they’re playing on a continuous loop that you can’t shut off, which interferes with your ability to slip into slumber.

Muscle tension

You’re experiencing muscle tension and pain or stress-related aches such as neck and shoulder pain or headaches, and it can be difficult for you to fall asleep or stay asleep. Complicating matters, poor sleep can set the stage for you to experience even more tension headaches and increased pain sensitivity the next day.

Your thoughts set your heart racing.

I often refer to this as your blood running cold as that intense wave of anxiety rushes over you. Your heart rate is revved up and variable, associated with increased cortisol levels (a stress hormone), greater physical tension, and increased autonomic arousal, which affects your ability to fall asleep or sleep well.

If you can identify with one or more of these, try to adopt some simple mindfulness techniques to clear your mind and get your heart rate and breathing back to normal.

Try to relax the muscles to relieve tension.

Exercises to help relax tense muscles are helpful at night and can be done in bed. This simple 20-minute regime also lets you focus your mind elsewhere to block out anxiety-driven thoughts.

Make sure you are sitting comfortably or lying down in a quiet place, hands rested down by your side. Begin by breathing slowly and noticing your inhale and exhale while your abdomen rises and falls. Remember to keep inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth throughout.

Take a slow, deep breath in as you tense and hold it for 5–10 seconds for each muscle group. Focus on the difference between tight and relaxed muscles. Don’t tense too hard and repeat twice for each muscle group.

Muscle groups (do each side separately where appropriate, e.g., legs and arms)

Foot: curl your toes downwards

Lower leg: pull toes towards you to tighten the calf muscle

Whole leg: squeeze thigh and pull toes towards you

Hand: clench your fist

Arm: curl forearm to shoulder and clench fist

Buttocks: tighten, drawing them together

Stomach: suck it in

Chest: Take a deep breath in to tighten

Neck and shoulders: raise shoulders to ears

Mouth: open wide to stretch the jaw

Eyes: squeeze them tightly shut

Forehead: raise eyebrows as far as they will go


Try breathing to relieve the physical symptoms of stress.

There are many helpful breathing exercises you can do for relaxation before bedtime. The most important part of this process is holding your breath. This allows oxygen to fill your lungs and circulate around the body, producing a relaxing effect throughout the whole body.

The 4–7–8 technique

  1. Place the tip of your tongue against the gum behind your top front teeth, then exhale to make a whooshing sound. Keep your tongue in this position.
  2. Breathe quietly through the nose for 4 seconds.
  3. Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
  4. Exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds, making a whooshing sound.
  5. Repeat 4 times 

Box breathing 

  1. Breathe, counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
  2. Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
  3. Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel fully relaxed.

Try visualising your favourite place to help clear the mind.

Another technique is Guided visualisation. The example below can help to lead you through the technique to start with. As you continue to practice, you will go more deeply and quickly. The examples below are brief, and you can find longer scripts online. Many apps are available to help talk you through a guided visualisation.

 Remember to breathe deeply through the exercise. Focus on breathing through your diaphragm by placing one hand on your belly to feel the rise on the inhale and the dip on the exhale. Place your other hand on your upper chest to ensure it’s still. Most of us breathe through our chest, maintaining the stress response. Deep breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to calm and put the body into a stable state.

Your special place - a day at the beach 

Imagine a sunny day, and you’re walking on a beach.

Close your eyes and visualise yourself there and relax into breathing deeply.

Look up to the blue sky and out to the clear water and listen to the sound of gently rolling waves and feel the light breeze on your skin.

Breath in deeply and imagine inhaling the smell of fresh ocean air.

A sense of freedom washes over your body, and you lie down, allowing yourself to sink into the soft sand.

Let go of any tension and soften your eyes as you breathe in sync with the lapping waves.

You slowly sink deeper and deeper into relaxation.

Say to yourself, “I am relaxed, and my body feels warm and heavy. I am safe here.”

These techniques are not for everyone, and you may favour one over the other. If you find they are not for you, then remember that they are simply ways of switching off your mind and relaxing. There may be different ways that are more suited to your interests, including listening to music (choral music is really relaxing) or an audiobook or reading. Just create a quiet space for this and immerse yourself entirely in what you’re doing while remembering to focus on your breathing to help you to relax.