3 Tips To Fall Asleep When You're Stressed, From A Psychiatrist & Neuroscientist
We've all been there: You're lying in bed, tired yet wired, unable to shut off your mind after a particularly stressful day. You keep ruminating over your worries, and you may even become anxious about your inability to fall asleep, which can make going to bed more dreadful the next night. Just know that you're not alone—and board-certified psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dave Rabin, M.D., Ph.D., co-founder of Apollo Neuro, is here to help.
Experiencing stress is inevitable, but it doesn't have to mess with your shut-eye. On this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, Rabin offers his three fail-safe hacks to secure a good night's rest, even when you're feeling stressed:
"My favorite technique is relatively simple. Just breathe the way you breathe when you're sleeping," says Rabin. (Think long, slow inhales and exhales.) "[Breathe for] five seconds in, hold for a second, [then breathe for] five or six seconds out. Just keep doing that, and try to fill your lungs as deep as you can and empty them as much as you can on every exhale."
By breathing consciously in this way, you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which takes you out of a "fight-or-flight" response and into a "rest-and-digest" mindset. "Your body starts to wind down, and you're starting to tell your body, 'Hey, you're safe. You're safe enough to pay attention to this breath. That means you're safe enough to fall asleep,'" says Rabin.
According to Rabin, a soothing touch can help you fall asleep faster, whether you apply it yourself or cuddle up next to a loved one or even a pet. Essentially, it provides a sense of safety and security. "That's why it's harder to sleep without blankets," he notes. "Because the blankets give you a sense of comfort that allows you to feel soothed."
Research backs up the science of touch, too: Rabin studied how touch impacts the emotional brain at the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Psychiatry and found that "when you are touched in a loving way, when you are experiencing soothing vibration, or a massage, or holding a pet, there's something actually happening [to your brain]1," he recounts. "It's telling you, 'I'm safe right now.' And it's actually the same thing that happens when you take a deep breath, and it's the same thing that happens when you do biofeedback [therapy]."
That's exactly what led him to create Apollo Neuro, a science-backed touch therapy device that has been clinically shown to increase HRV and cognitive performance and even provide an easier access to meditation. "We realized that there are ways to potentially replicate the benefits of soothing touch and deep breathing on the go by figuring out what the touch receptors in our skin like to feel when we feel safe and sending it to them with vibration," he adds. "[It's] almost like a song for your skin that the body feels and sends to the brain."
Progressive muscle relaxation.
Finally, you can also engage in progressive muscle relaxation, a technique that involves tensing or stretching groups of muscles all over your body, one by one, and then relaxing them again.
"You basically reach out with your fingers and toes as far as you can, like a reaching stretch while you're lying down in bed," explains Rabin. "Stretch for five seconds as you breathe in and relax; then you breathe out and repeat that cycle going all the way up your body, just drawing your awareness away from your thoughts about earlier that day, things you need to do the next day, or wherever else your mind could go." It draws your attention back to your body, and it has been shown to help people fall asleep longer and have a more well-rested brain profile during sleep.
If you're feeling too stressed to sleep, try Rabin's hacks to help your eyes grow heavy (feel free to pair 'em with a science-backed sleep supplement if you need some extra help). Just try not to worry too much if they don't work right away: "If you haven't learned how to do these techniques, starting to do them can be tricky. It could take time," he notes. "They can work fairly quickly, but it can take a little bit of time—sometimes a couple of days—to get the hang of it." As with most well-being practices, consistency is key.
We hope you enjoy this episode sponsored by Apollo Neuro! And don't forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or Amazon Music!
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.