One of my current goals is to, at least four times a week, close my eyes with eight hours and 40 minutes until my alarm is set to go off. It’s formatted that way because I can’t control how much sleep I actually get. What I can control though is when I power down. Just because it’s set up that way though doesn’t mean I enjoy tossing and turning all night.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take me long to fall asleep. Maybe a handful of minutes. Then I’m out. It hasn’t always been that way though.
I spoke with someone about sleep habits recently. She explained how she listens to a certain podcast to put her to bed. That it works like a charm to knock her out. I told her how I use a special breathing technique when I’m likewise having trouble. I described it briefly before then asking her if she was familiar with it. Turns out she wasn’t. So I explained it to her as I will now explain it to you.
But first, context.
Several years back, I was sitting before my psychologist. Describing my worries, fears, and concerns, he told me about a simple tactic to regain peace. Something that I could do to calm my brain down. To reduce some of my anxieties and in turn relax. Furthermore, the technique could also be used for sleep if I ever had trouble getting it. I was intrigued. He showed me what to do.
The tactic in full
Close your eyes. Lay your hands flat on your lap. Breathe in a slow, elongated breath. As you inhale, raise your left index finger. Lift it at the rate of your inhale. Then, fully inhaled and finger raised, exhale. Release your breath at the same slow, steady rate. As you exhale, lower your finger until it lays flat once again. Now repeat that process, but this time, raise and lower your right index finger instead of your left.
Go back and forth. Inhale and raise your left index finger. Exhale and lower your left index finger. Inhale and raise your right index finger. Exhale and lower your right index finger.
It’s been years and I still use this tactic. After all, it’s incredibly simple. You can do it in nearly any sleeping position. You can do it any time. Plus, no headphones are required, no apps need to be downloaded, and it’s entirely free (no copay necessary). I use it for naps as well as a night’s sleep. I use it when having a hard time drifting off and when I don’t have a lot of time to wind down. In short, it works for me.
The struggle to drift off
That’s the technique. Simple, right? The next question you may be wondering is why it works. I’m not a physician and have no medical experience. However, considering I’ve done it for years now, I do have some theories as to the efficacy behind it. I’m sure the psychologist explained it to me in scientific terms, but those memories are long gone. So here’s my take on it. Consider it a layman’s report.
Imagine you’re laying in bed.
You toss and turn, toss and turn. Annoyed, you check the time on your phone. Midnight. I have to be up in six hours! I’m going to be so tired tomorrow! Ugh! I need to go to sleep already! Panic sets in. The later it gets, the harder it is to fall asleep. Eventually, you decide that tomorrow is going to be awful. You accept that you will be groggy. Sighing, you grab your phone. You text your boss that you’re going to be in late. Pulling up your calendar, you adjust your schedule. You clear away the major tasks for the day. You email your assistant to move that morning’s meeting.
Irritated, you plug your phone back in and try to get comfortable once more. To your surprise, you fall asleep not long after that. Your acceptance and resolution caused your frustration to dissipate. Your stress over tomorrow’s tiredness gave way to calm. And in that, you finally rest for the night. Took you long enough.
Why it works
When sleep is a struggle, that seems to be the only thing you can think about. Your focus is given entirely to it. And because of that, it becomes that much more elusive. Conversely, consider the breathing technique I described. It calls for slow, deliberate breaths. It also requires slow, deliberate, and alternating hand motions.
The breathing calms you down. Raising and lowering alternate index fingers steals your focus. Instead of worrying about lack of sleep, your attention is turned towards matching your inhale to the lifting of your finger. Then it’s concerned with matching your exhale to the lowering of your finger. And it’s concerned once more with following the process on your other hand.
In turn, the breathing calms your body. The fingers calm your mind. Or, if not entirely calming it, certainly distracts it from the clock. And in that relaxed, distracted state, sleep becomes that much more attainable.
Moving forward with easier sleep
Sleep is a priority for me. It likely is for you as well. When I find myself struggling to get it – either in the form of naps or evening shut-eye – I remember what my psychologist taught me those many years ago. Close your eyes. Lay your hands flat on your lap. Breathe in a slow, elongated breath. As you inhale, raise your left index finger. Lift it at the rate of your inhale. Then, fully inhaled and finger raised, exhale. Release your breath at the same slow, steady rate. As you exhale, lower your finger until it lays flat once again.
Repeat that process, but this time, raise and lower your right index finger instead of your left. Back and forth, over and over.
It’s not guaranteed to knock you out. But compared to various other techniques I’ve tried, it’s the most effective by far. Try it out next time you find yourself tossing and turning. Don’t let the clock stress you out. Instead, allow the breath to calm your body. Allow the alternating finger motions to distract and calm your mind. Allow yourself to fall asleep with ease. Sweet dreams.