Relax the Nervous System for Better Sleep
Updated: Sep 13
Understand the role of the nervous system in quality sleep, and how to relax the nervous system for better sleep
You get into bed, ready for sleep. And boom, off go your thoughts! You start thinking about all the things you must do, your worries, and a fight you had with a friend a few months ago.
Your body gets tense, making it hard to fall asleep.
Or, you wake up frequently throughout the night feeling alert, awake, and wound up, making it hard to go back to sleep.
Maybe you experience both.
Either way, both scenarios are incredibly frustrating. And impairing.
Poor sleep lowers your productivity. Decreases your attention and focus. Increases stress. Causes irritability. And so much more.
You’ve probably heard of sleep hygiene and tried it, but you’re still sleeping poorly. Ugh!
If that’s the case, I’m guessing your sleep problems are related to an overactivated nervous system keeping you up instead helping you to get a great night’s sleep.
The good news is, understanding the role of the nervous system in sleep and how to relax your nervous system can help you get that quality night’s sleep you’ve been dreaming of for so long.
That allows you to wake up and ready to take on the day.
Ready, set, goodnight and sleep tight!
Relax the Nervous System for Better Sleep: The Science
The body’s autonomic nervous system is divided into two sections: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is involved in the body’s activated response, and is often implicated in high stress, anxiety, and anger.
The opposite system, the parasympathetic nervous system, is known as the rest and digest nervous system, since it is responsible for controlling the body’s ability to relax.
Therefore, this system is important in calming the body and mind in order to get a good night’s sleep.
What needs to happen to fall asleep? That’s right, we need to be calm and relaxed.
However, there are many things can make it hard to relax and calm the body and mind for sleep. A few common culprits that make it hard to relax when it is time to sleep:
· High stress and anxiety
· Chronic pain/chronic muscle tension
· A hectic schedule/routine
· Working right up until bedtime
In order to fall asleep and stay asleep for a restful night’s sleep, we need to relax the nervous system. We do this by specifically engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, a crucial step to improving sleep and overall health.
How to Relax the Nervous System
The good news is, there are several ways to relax the nervous system for better sleep. The best way to do this is with deep relaxation.
Deep relaxation activates the parasympathetic response in the body, calming the body and mind. It does so by reducing muscle tension, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure, and quieting the mind.
There are various ways to engage the deep relaxation response, and two of the best ways to do this for sleep specifically are deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
One of the best ways to calm the body and mind for bed (and manage stress and anxiety) is deep breathing.
Deep breathing activates the calm response in the body and calms down breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Spending 5-10 minutes during your nighttime routine engaged in this exercise can be very helpful.
Consistency is more important than length of time, so choose a time in your evening (preferably close to bedtime), in which you can incorporate this strategy into your routine.
Follow these instructions:
1) Sit in a comfortable place with your feet on the ground
2) Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. During this exercise, we want to feel our belly rising and expanding, and we want our chest to be mostly still
3) Take a slow inhale through your nose over a count of two seconds. This should be calm and gentle. Imagine filling your nose with air over two seconds. As you inhale through your nose, imagine inflating a balloon in your stomach with air (you should feel your belly rise)
4) Exhale the air out of your mouth with slightly pursed lips over a count of three seconds. You should be able to hear your exhale. Imagine blowing on hot soup or blowing out a row of birthday candles. Imagine deflating the balloon in your stomach by gently squeezing your abs.
5) Repeat for 3-5 cycles
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
One of the best ways to reduce muscle tension specifically in the body is with progressive muscle relaxation. This exercise has been shown to be especially helpful with improving sleep since it relaxes the body and mind.
Spending 10-15 minutes in this exercise nightly can be a great way to prepare the body for sleep.
Other Considerations to Relax for Better Sleep
Calming the nervous system is one of the best ways to improve sleep quality and quantity. Consider the factors listed below as further areas to address to improve sleep in support of a calm nervous system.
Managing Stress, Anxiety, and Other Mood Concerns
Poorly managed stress, anxiety, irritability, and other mood concerns are the top reasons for difficulty falling and staying asleep at night.
While calming the nervous system is an important part of mood management, addressing anxiety and other mood concerns in a comprehensive way is important to improve sleep and overall wellbeing.
Create a Calm Sleep Environment
Creating a calm and relaxing sleep environment is important. Ensure that your bedroom is comfortable and dark, your room temperature is cool, and your pillows support your sleep position.
Take all other activity out of the bedroom, such as work, TV, electronics, and any other activity that is not sleeping (other than sexual activity).
Monitor Stimulants and Other Substances
Stimulants such as coffee, nicotine, and other stimulants can activate the sympathetic nervous system, making it hard to fall and stay asleep. Therefore, monitor any substances, drinks, or supplements that may increase stimulation before bed.
Difficulty falling and staying asleep negatively impacts our mood, productivity, relationships, energy, and so much more. The good news is you don’t have to struggle with poor sleep related to overactivation of your nervous system any longer.
Follow the tips shared today to sleep like a baby and wake up feeling refreshed, energetic, and ready to take on your day.
Poor sleep getting you down? My Master Stress Method coaching program helps you unlock all the keys to improving your sleep, stress levels, energy, and so much more.
Book a discovery call so we can talk about how you can end the struggle, for good.
----About Dr. Julia
Hi! I'm Dr. Julia. Health psychologist, stress and sleep expert, and creator of the Master Stress Method.
I have worked with thousands of individuals in major hospitals, university medical centers, and primary care settings to improve their stress levels, sleep, and overall emotional and physical well being.
My current focus is helping busy professionals prevent and manage the high stress that is getting in the way of their productivity, mood, sleep, and their ability to reach their full potential.
My 8-week, 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of stressed out, overwhelmed, and burned out clients significantly reduce their stress and anxiety, improve their sleep, and maximize their productivity, in just 8 short weeks.
I can't wait to help you stop the struggle with stress, for good. Let's chat :)