These techniques work best when done right before bed, in a quiet, calming environment. But you can also practice them several times a day, recommends Joyce Walsleben, PhD, associate professor at New York University School of Medicine.
"If you can keep your stress levels under control during the day, you'll sleep better at night," Walsleben says. "You can even do them at your desk or on the train."
Breathing from the abdomen and putting your attention on those breaths can help you relax both during the day and in bed at night. Some people may enjoy lying in a dimly lit room, closing their eyes, or listening to soft music while focusing on their out breaths.
Some people imagine a calm scene to help them wind down at the end of the day. There are no rules about what you should imagine, so long as it's calming. Although clouds, the ocean, and mountains are common choices, you can focus on something as general or as specific as you want.
"I had a patient who liked to picture his officebrushing everything off his desk and going to sleep," Walsleben says. "Other people enjoy visualizing that they're blowing bubbles. They put the stick in the jar and watch every bubble go over a field until the jar is empty."
Pick a place that feels safe, and, using your imagination, invite any or all of your senses to explore it. "The brain doesn't always know the difference between pretend and real," says Dr. Doner. "If you watch a scary movie, your adrenaline might go up, just as if you imagine eating something vividly enough, you might start to salivate."
Guided imagery can be done alone or with a specialist, such as a sleep doctor, cognitive-behavioral therapist, or hypnotherapist, or by using a tape or CDbut even when prompted by an instructor, the patient should still be the guide. "They need to imagine someplace comfortable and peaceful," says Dr. Doner. "I don't know where they need to go; the ocean may seem peaceful for one person, but traumatic for another."
Focusing on different aspects of your life before bed can help you earn your rest, if you're able to let those thoughts go. "You need to look at one thing at a time, which slows things down," says Walsleben. "Focus on an issue in your life, then let it go. The major learning experience here is letting go."
For some people, it may help to write in a journal during the day. "For 15 minutes take those issues that run through your head at night and write them down," says Walsleben. "Then for the next 15 minutes make a plan and write that down too. At night when the lights are off, you can't do anything about it, but by processing things in the daytime, you can."
While lying in bed, start by gazing upward. "A little eye strain relaxes you," says Dr. Doner. Take an abdominal breath and hold it, and on the out breath, let everything relax. Repeat one or two times. You might then try imagining yourself walking down a flight of stairs or a gentle hill while counting down from 10 or 20, each number signifying your movement to a lower step, exhaling with each imaginary step.
You can also weave a number of these techniques together, Dr. Doner says. "You might start with your belly breath," she says, "then go to progressive relaxation, then down the stairs, then go to your peaceful place. You want to give people a lot of things to try."