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Make a tight fist and hold it. Now let your fist loosen. Releasing tension in your hand is actually more effective than trying to relax your hand.
The first “switch” is your tongue. Many people hold tension in their tongues, often pressing it against the roof of the mouth, and aren’t aware of it. Briefly press your tongue against the roof of your mouth to make it tense. Then release—just as you allowed your fist to loosen—allow your tongue be anywhere in your mouth.
The second “switch” is your throat. Just for a brief moment, tighten your throat by swallowing and holding your swallow. Then release and feel your throat loosen slightly. Then tighten your throat once more, then release.
Your tongue and throat are part of your involuntary (autonomic) nervous system. Though it is fairly easy to allow them to relax, therefore they are also part of your voluntary nervous system. As a result your tongue and throat act as “bridges” between your voluntary and involuntary nervous systems, which gives you a simple way to get your involuntary nervous system—the “deeper” part of your nervous system—to begin to relax.
Gently be aware of your tongue and allow it to become slightly more comfortable. Do not tighten your tongue as in the exercise above, simply allow it be anywhere in your mouth. If your tongue is already comfortable, then just gently be aware of it. It might feel as if your tongue, even the back of your tongue, is getting a bit softer. If you need to swallow, that’s okay. If your tongue gets tense again, just give allow it to become slightly more comfortable.
Gently be aware of your throat. You do not need to tighten your throat as in the exercise above, simply allow it to become slightly more comfortable. If your throat is already comfortable, then just gently be aware of it. It might feel as if your throat becomes more spacious and open inside. If you need to swallow, that’s okay.
For various neurological reasons, allowing your tongue and throat to be slightly more comfortable helps your mind and body to become calmer.
The third “switch” in your nervous system is your breathing. When trying to breathe more comfortably, most people try deep breathing, breathing slowly and evenly, breathing into their abdomen, etc. While that can be useful for daytime relaxation, it is too much work and not effective for sleep.
When you exhale, your lungs deflate and your chest falls inward, toward the center of your chest. Put one hand on your chest and look at your hand. Take a few deep breaths and as you exhale, while watching your hand, you will see your chest moves inward. Now take your hand off your chest and, as you exhale, feel your chest moving inward, without trying to change your breath. Feel this for enough breaths that you are confident you can easily feel it.
Breathing happens without having to remember to breathe. Even if you are stressed and your breath is uncomfortable, the fact that your breath exists is much greater than whatever you are stressed about. Breath is worthy of appreciation. When you exhale and feel the inward movement of your chest, without trying to change your breath, it can be like feeling your breath with a sense of appreciation that breath exists. From this, breathing naturally becomes more comfortable. This is a much easier and more natural way of trying to calm your breath.
The fourth and final “switch” in your nervous system is your heart. This method gives you a way for your heart to feel protected and safe. Your heart then sends your body and mind signals of “It’s safe to rest.”
Don’t try to calm you physical heart (on the left side of your chest), but rather the area deep in the center of your chest. I call that the “heart area.” It’s easier to calm your heart area, and that automatically calms your physical heart. As you exhale and your chest gently moves inward toward the center of your chest, that helps calm your heart area. Your heart doesn’t need to become very calm. When it just begins to become calm, you will feel relief.
You might think, “How can I feel safe when I have so much stress?” If you were out in a storm, you might need to brace yourself. Once you are inside, you can calm yourself because you are indoors, protected from the weather. Allow your tongue and throat to become more comfortable, as you exhale, gently feel the inward movement of your chest, without trying to change your breath, and feel this begin to calm your heart area. This brings your awareness to a feeling of comfort and safety inside your body, safe and protected inside, even if there are “storms” in your life. This becomes like a “secret place” to go to inside yourself to ease into sleep. Your mind likes this feeling, begins to rest in that feeling, and begins to become quiet without trying to make it quiet.
When your head is on a pillow, you don’t concentrate on the pillow, you just rest in it. Similarly, you don’t have to concentrate on the comfortable body sensation. Feel it and let yourself rest in that comfort.
The old goal was “I have to get to sleep (or back to sleep)” That creates too much pressure, which makes sleep difficult. Now have your goal be to get close to sleep with the steps summarized below. Obviously, you can’t do something to get to sleep. However, with these steps, you can do something simple to get close to sleep. Your body then recognizes that feeling and carries you the rest of the way into sleep.
Richard Shane, Ph.D.
Insomnia can be a very stressful and frustrating condition. Most treatments designed to overcome insomnia are centered around proper sleep hygiene, or developing good sleep habits. Instead, “Simple Steps to Sleep” is about what you do when your head is on the pillow—how to actually cross over into sleep.
There exist very subtle yet easily recognizable body sensations that create the feeling of falling asleep. With these cues, you do not need to quiet your mind, because as your body approaches sleep, your mind becomes quiet on its own. Using these cues, we are able to develop a simple and highly effective method that gives you a way to fall asleep, fall back to sleep and sleep more deeply.
People often think that the way to relax is to try to relax their entire bodies. That is too much work and often doesn’t lead to sleep. Rather, there are two small areas of your body that act as switches in your nervous system. These are easier to feel and create deeper relaxation.
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