9 Breathing Exercises Before Bed for Sleep and Anxiety

Struggling to sleep? Try diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, or psychological sighing to help you drift off.
Updated
2024-01-06
20 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Breathing is one of those things you often don’t even think about. But, while simple, breathing exercises before bed can have a powerful effect. 

The right exercises can help ease anxiety, lower your heart rate, and help you drift off. And breathing in the right way — such as through your nose, not your mouth — both while awake and asleep has a whole host of health benefits. 

Breathing is a part of your autonomic nervous system, along with your heart rate, blood pressure, and digestive system. But breathing is one of the functions you have control over. Changing your breathing can help you change other aspects of your body, such as your stress levels, heart rate, and how well you fall asleep. 

Below, we’ll cover breathing exercises you can do before bed to help you fall asleep and boost your overall energy, health, and well-being. Plus, we’ll share how the RISE app can guide you through diaphragmatic breathing, a breathing exercise with many science-backed benefits, and how the app can help you do other activities that make a huge difference to your sleep and health. 

Why Do Breathing Exercises Before Bed?

Breathing exercises before bed are useful as they can help you sleep in a few ways. 

Firstly, it’s a relaxation exercise. Breathing exercises can slow your brain and body down before bed and promote your body’s parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxing state of “rest and digest.” This is opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, which is your body’s stress response, or “fight or flight” response. 

Our emotional state affects our breathing (you might notice you breathe faster and more shallowly when you’re stressed), but the link works the other way around, too. Our breathing can affect our emotional state. In other words, by slowing and lengthening your breathing you can lower your stress and anxiety levels. This is useful before bed. 

Another reason to do breathing exercises? They can help if you find yourself awake with anxiety, either when you’re trying to drift off or if you’ve woken up during the night. As well as calming you down, mindful breathing exercises can give you something to focus on to stop rumination, or endless worrying. 

Breathing exercises at any time of day can help keep stress levels in check, something that’ll be useful when bedtime rolls around. And they can also help promote the “correct” way of breathing (i.e. slowly, low or deeply to engage the diaphragm, and through your nose, more on that soon), which has huge benefits for your overall health and wellness, as well as your sleep. They can help at any time of day, but before bed can be a great time to do these exercises, especially when your days are busy. 

What are the Best Breathing Exercises Before Bed?

Breathwork has become a bit of a buzzword lately, but more scientific evidence is emerging to show how useful it can be. While promising, more research needs to be done, though. Many studies on breath control or breathing exercises come with limitations, like being small in size, having a risk of bias, or being done in populations with health conditions or impaired breathing, meaning we don’t know much yet about how breathing exercises can help the general population. 

One thing that is clear though is there’s very little downside to doing these exercises, and some benefits are backed by science.

Heads-up: Naming conventions for these breathing exercises aren’t consistent. Some overlap with each other, but are listed as separate exercises (like deep breathing and diaphragmatic breathing, which both engage the diaphragm, for example). While there’s overlap, we’ve kept these exercises separate to reflect the naming conventions used in studies. This keeps the health benefits attributed to each exercise as accurate as possible.   

Here are some exercises to try.

1. Diaphragmatic Breathing

RISE app screenshot showing diaphragmatic breathing
The RISE app can guide you through a diaphragmatic breathing exercise.

What it is: Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or deep breathing, involves breathing slowly, deeply, and while engaging the diaphragm, the major breathing muscle found below the lungs.

Despite breathing all the time, many of us only engage our diaphragm as little as 10%. Instead, we breathe shallowly from our chests, which can put pressure on the heart and increase blood pressure. This can limit the range of your diaphragm and your lung capacity.

Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to trigger your body’s relaxation response, slowing your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and reducing stress and anxiety. And it may even help those with health conditions like eating disorders, chronic functional constipation, high blood pressure, migraines, cancer, gastroesophageal reflux disease, heart failure, motion sickness, and sleep disorders like sleep apnea.

It sounds powerful for a simple breathing exercise, but science backs it up: 

  • A 2022 study found diaphragmatic breathing helped those with sleep apnea feel less daytime sleepiness. We’ve covered how to know if you have sleep apnea here.
  • A 2021 study looking at diaphragmatic breathing in nurses during the COVID-19 outbreak found the breathing exercise helped reduce anxiety, sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep), and sleep disturbances. 
  • Research from 2020 found diaphragmatic breathing helped those in hospital improve their sleep quality (although there’s no set definition for sleep quality).
  • A 2019 systematic review found diaphragmatic breathing can reduce stress levels, including physical markers of stress like cortisol levels, breathing rate, and blood pressure.
  • 2017 research shows eight weeks of diaphragmatic breathing training can improve attention, mood, and cortisol levels. 
  • A study from 2016 found diaphragmatic breathing can reduce anxiety, heart rate, and breathing rate over eight weeks.

Just five minutes of diaphragmatic breathing a day can help to ease stress and anxiety, which can help you drift off more easily. And even a single session has been shown to reduce blood pressure, increase heart rate variability (a sign of heart health), and boost how much oxygen you have in your system.

Diaphragmatic breathing helps you get into a relaxed state in the moment, and over time you should begin to breathe more slowly and deeply in everyday life. 

How to do it: There are many different ways to do diaphragmatic breathing. Try this to get started:

  • Sit in a comfortable position and place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. 
  • Breathe in deeply so you feel the hand on your belly rise, but not the hand on your chest. 
  • Continue inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply. 
  • Try doing 20 deep breaths to start with. 

The RISE app can walk you through diaphragmatic breathing with a two-minute guided session.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.

2. Box Breathing

What it is: Box breathing is a type of diaphragmatic breathing that involves inhaling, holding your breath, exhaling, and holding your breath, for a set count. 

It not only promotes deep diaphragmatic breathing, but holding your breath momentarily can further promote parasympathetic activity, or relaxation responses, in the body.

How to do it:

  • Inhale for a count of four 
  • Hold your breath for a count of four 
  • Exhale for a count of four 
  • Hold your breath for a count of four 
  • Repeat for 20 to 50 seconds, or a few box cycles   

It can help to use a visualization of a box. As you breathe in, imagine moving along the top of a box, hold your breath as you imagine moving down the right-hand side, breathe out as you move across the bottom, hold as you move up the left-hand side of the box, and repeat. 

diagram of box breathing
Image credit: https://workwithmum.com

You can get started with four seconds. To determine how long exactly you should count for to maximize the exercise’s benefits, try doing a carbon dioxide tolerance test

  • Get a timer ready to use and take three normal breaths 
  • Inhale and fill your lungs completely 
  • Start the timer as you begin to exhale 
  • Exhale slowly through your nose for as long as you can 
  • Stop the timer when you’re finished.

If you exhaled for 20 seconds or less, try box breathing for three seconds on each side. If you exhaled for 20 to 45 seconds, try five to six seconds for box breathing, and if you exhaled for 50 seconds or longer, try box breathing for eight to 10 seconds. 

Be sure to pick a length of time that doesn’t cause any strain or anxiety while you’re doing the exercise.

You can increase how long you inhale, exhale, and hold your breath as you get stronger with this breathing exercise. If you find the exercise easy after a few weeks, try retesting your carbon dioxide tolerance to find a new time.

3. 4-7-8 Breathing

What it is: The 4-7-8 breathing exercise was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, a doctor and the founder and Director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. 

The exercise involves breathing in for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of seven, and then breathing out for a count of eight. 

The technique is based on yogic pranayama breathing techniques, and it can ease anxiety and stress to help you fall asleep.

Research from 2022 looked at how the 4-7-8 breathing method could help patients after bariatric surgery. The study found it helped to lower stress and anxiety. 

Another study from 2022 found the 4-7-8 technique can improve heart rate variability and blood pressure, both when sleep deprived and when you’re getting enough sleep — although it worked better in those who weren’t sleep deprived.  

The breathing exercise has even been shown to help reduce pain during childbirth

How to do it: 

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight 
  • Place the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth 
  • Breath in for a count of four seconds 
  • Hold your breath for a count of seven 
  • Exhale forcefully through your mouth for a count of eight, making a whooshing sound as you do 
  • Repeat for four to six breath cycles 

Stop if you experience lightheadedness, and try doing the exercise for shorter periods of time next time. 

4. Paced Breathing 

What it is: Paced breathing involves slowing your breathing to about six breaths per minute and extending your exhales to be longer than your inhales. 

Slow breathing helps activate your body’s relaxation response and improve your sleep. One study found when insomniacs practiced paced breathing for 20 minutes before bed, they had reduced sleep latency, number of awakenings, and time awake during the night. 

How to do it: 

  • Inhale for a count of two to four seconds through your nose 
  • Exhale for a count of four to six seconds through your mouth
  • You can adjust how long you inhale and exhale for, just be sure you’re exhaling for longer than you’re inhaling  
  • If it helps, focus on an object, image, or sound to clear your mind 
  • Repeat for a few cycles 

5. Deep Breathing 

What it is: Deep breathing is exactly what it sounds like: breathing deeply. You may find it easier to focus on breathing deeply rather than incorporating inhale and exhale times into your breathing exercises. It’s also a great exercise for beginners. 

Deep breathing is a form of diaphragmatic breathing, so it has many of the same benefits. 

Deep breathing exercises can relax your body and reduce stress, helping you get ready for sleep, as it activates your body’s parasympathetic “relaxation” nerves, many of which are found at the bottom of your lungs.

Slow, deep breathing can also boost melatonin production, the natural hormone that primes your body for sleep. It may even help to treat insomnia by reducing “hyperarousal,” or being alert in fight-or-flight mode.

Deep breathing may even help after an operation, a time when it can be especially hard to get a good night’s sleep. A 2019 study looked at sleep in patients after surgery — a coronary artery bypass graft to be exact. It found deep breathing prevented a decline in sleep quality after the operation.

Another study found deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation reduced anxiety and distress and improved the quality of sleep in hospitalized older adults. RISE can guide you through a progressive muscle relaxation session.

How to do it: 

  • Focus on breathing deeply into your diaphragm rather than the all-too-common shallow breathing into your chest. 
  • For progressive muscle relaxation, tense and relax one muscle group at a time, working around your entire body. Remember to breathe deeply as you’re doing this.
  • Deep breathing is often used with a body scan where you mentally scan your body one part at a time, noticing how each part feels. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.

6. Psychological Sighing

What it is: Psychological sighing, or cyclic sighing, is a breathing exercise that involves two inhales followed by a long exhale. 

We sigh naturally to remove excess carbon dioxide from the body and it can promote relaxation.

Research from 2023 — co-authored by our scientific advisor and Co-Director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at Stanford University Jamie Zeitzer — shows five minutes of psychological sighing can improve your mood, reduce breathing rate, and help manage stress levels. It states psychological sighing is more effective at increasing positive mood than mindfulness meditation.

While no changes were found for sleep, reducing your stress levels could help to improve your sleep as stress and anxiety can keep you awake.

How to do it: 

  • Inhale through the nose once
  • Inhale again through the nose (don’t worry if this inhale is shorter)
  • Take a long exhale through the month 
  • Repeat for five minutes

7. Nasal Breathing Exercises 

What it is: Mouth breathing can lead to snoring and sleep apnea, two problems that will affect how well you breathe at night and how restorative your sleep is. Mouth breathing can also lead to low energy, high blood pressure, brain fog, and impaired brain function. 

Breathing through your nose, on the other hand, can help reduce your risk of snoring and sleep apnea, lower anxiety, reduce infections, and it’s been shown to improve self-reported sleep quality.

There are some exercises you can do to help you breathe through your nose during the day, which should help you do so at night, too. 

How to do it: 

To decongest your nose

  • Take a normal breath through your nose 
  • Use your fingers to pinch your nose to hold your breath 
  • Continue pinching and nod your head up and down, then side to side 
  • Hold your breath for as long as you can, until you feel the urge to breathe 
  • Let go of your nose and try to breathe through it as calmly as possible  
  • Rest for 30 to 60 seconds then repeat. Do this six times. 

Remind yourself to breathe through your nose during the day. This will help you break the habit of mouth breathing and “train” your nose to make nasal breathing feel easier. You can set reminders on your phone or stick a Post-it note to your mirror. 

We’ve covered more ways to stop mouth breathing at night here and how to sleep with a stuffy nose here.

8. Mouth Taping 

What it is: Mouth taping isn’t exactly a breathing exercise, but it does directly change how you breathe at night. It involves placing a small piece of tape over your lips while you sleep to force your body to breathe through your nose. 

As we explained above, there are many health risks that come with mouth breathing, and many benefits of nasal breathing. You might breathe through your mouth because of allergies or nasal obstructions, but it may just be out of habit. 

If it’s a habit, mouth taping can stop the mouth from opening at night, helping you make the switch to nasal breathing. You may find you don’t need tape anymore after a few weeks. 

One small study found mouth taping decreased snoring intensity and frequency and decreased sleep apnea severity. 

Mouth taping is sometimes used as part of the Buteyko breathing technique to help stabilize people’s breathing patterns. It’s said to help those with asthma, but more research is needed on this front.

How to do it: 

  • Before you tape, make sure you can breathe easily through your nose. If you’re congested or can’t get enough oxygen nasally, don’t try mouth taping. Get medical advice before you tape.
  • Place a small piece of surgical tape over both lips to stop them from opening at night. Use a piece longer than you need and fold over the top to make it easier to remove in the morning.
  • Start small by taping during the day for 10 minutes before trying it for a full night’s sleep.

Heads-up: Taping your mouth closed can cause anxiety and discomfort. Don’t let this anxiety keep you awake. You can buy chin straps that keep your mouth closed at night without the need for tape. 

You can learn more about mouth taping for sleep here.

9. Coherent Breathing 

What it is: Coherent breathing involves taking five or six breaths per minute. It sounds simple, but the results are impressive. Coherent breathing can improve heart rate variability, circulation, oxygen saturation, and reduce dead space in the lungs.

A 2019 study looked at people with major depressive disorder. They did both yoga and coherent breathing exercises for 12 weeks. At the end of the experiment, depression, anxiety symptoms, sleep quality, and feelings of positivity had improved. 

Research from 2020 found 12 weeks of yoga and coherent breathing exercises increased gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) levels, a neurotransmitter in your brain linked to calming anxiety and stress.  

While promising, both studies included yoga, so it’s not clear how much coherent breathing would benefit you if you practiced it alone. 

How to do it: 

  • Take a few normal breaths and count the length of each inhale and exhale so you have a baseline
  • Inhale and exhale for four seconds for one minute
  • Extend your inhales and exhales to five seconds for one minute
  • Extend to six seconds for one minute 
  • Be sure to breathe deeply into your belly, not just your chest. 
  • Start by coherent breathing for five minutes and work up to 20 minutes.

How to Get More Sleep?

The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits.

If you’re turning to breathing exercises in an effort to drift off and get more sleep, there are other things you need to consider as part of something called sleep hygiene.

Sleep hygiene is the name for the set of daily behaviors that can make or break your sleep. When you’ve got good sleep hygiene, you’ll have a better chance of falling asleep faster and waking up less often throughout the night. Breathing exercises can add to this and help your sleep be as restorative as possible, maximizing your energy and health. 

If you’ve got poor sleep hygiene, however, your sleep will suffer, even with the power of good breathing behind you. 

Here’s what to do for good sleep hygiene: 

  • Get bright light first thing: Light in the morning resets your circadian rhythm, your roughly 24-hour body clock. This will help you feel sleepy at the right time come bedtime. Get at least 10 minutes of light as soon as possible after waking up and 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window.
  • Avoid light close to bedtime: Bright light can keep you up in the evening. About 90 minutes before bed, dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, intense exercise, and alcohol too late in the day: You don’t need to give up these four sleep disruptors altogether, you just need to know when to avoid them each day to protect your sleep. RISE can tell you exactly when to steer clear of them. 
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet: Set your thermostat to 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit, invest in blackout curtains, and wear earplugs and an eye mask to make sure nothing disrupts your sleep. 
  • Do a relaxing bedtime routine: This could involve breathing exercises to help you slow down for sleep, as well as other relaxing activities like reading, yoga, or listening to music

To keep your sleep hygiene on point, the RISE app can guide you through 20+ habits each day and tell you the ideal time to do each one to make them more effective.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.

How to Lower Anxiety for Sleep?

RISE app screenshots showing you relaxation techniques
The RISE app can guide you through relaxation exercises.

Many people turn to breathing exercises before bed in an effort to lower their anxiety, which may be keeping them awake. While breathing exercises have been shown to be effective at managing anxiety and improving mental health, there are a few other things you can do. 

Here’s how to lower anxiety before bed: 

  • Do a calming bedtime routine: Avoid stressful activities like reading the news or checking email in the run-up to bedtime. Instead, try reading, listening to calming music, journaling, or doing yoga before bed. RISE can guide you through relaxation techniques for sleep such as autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Do a brain dump: Write down what you’re worrying about or write down a to-do list. Research shows writing a to-do list can help you fall asleep faster compared to other types of journaling. RISE’s brain dump feature will remind you of what you write down the next day.
  • Ask for help: If stress and anxiety are affecting your sleep, health, and overall quality of life, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Breathing exercises can help, but you may need to make bigger changes like cutting back at work or getting more help with childcare. Reach out to friends and family members, and consider speaking to a therapist or your healthcare provider. 
  • Consider cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy involving talk therapy and sometimes breathing exercises. It’s been shown to be beneficial for everything from anxiety to depression to insomnia. One study found four weeks of CBT plus breathing exercises helped those with major depression improve their sleep quality.

You can learn more about how to sleep with anxiety here.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their Brain Dump Habit notification

Get a Good Night’s Sleep with the Power of Your Breath

While more research needs to be done, science is starting to discover how powerful breathing exercises before bed — or at any other time — can be. These exercises can lower stress and anxiety, slow your heart rate, and help you get better sleep.

The RISE app can guide you through breathing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing and other relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. 

While these exercises are powerful, they’re just one tool you can use to maximize your sleep, energy, and health.

To improve your sleep even more, focus on sleep hygiene. RISE can remind you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits throughout the day to help you get the best night’s sleep possible.

Summary FAQs

Does deep breathing before bed help sleep?

Deep breathing before bed can help sleep as it can activate your body’s parasympathetic response, or your relaxation response. It can boost the production of the sleep hormone melatonin and ease stress and anxiety to help you sleep.

Can deep breathing help with insomnia?

Deep breathing may help with insomnia. Deep breathing can activate your body’s parasympathetic response, or your relaxation response, boost the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, and ease stress and anxiety. Paced breathing has been shown to help insomniacs fall asleep faster and wake up less often during the night.

Can deep breathing help sleep apnea?

Deep breathing may help those with sleep apnea. Diaphragmatic breathing, or breathing into your belly not your chest, has been shown to help those improve sleep apnea symptoms and help sufferers feel less daytime tiredness. Nasal breathing can also reduce symptoms. Breathing exercises can help strengthen the throat muscles, keeping airways open at night.

Is box breathing good before bed?

Box breathing is good before bed because it can activate your body’s parasympathetic response, or relaxation response, to help you fall asleep. It can also reduce stress and anxiety, slow your heart rate, and lower blood pressure.

Does diaphragmatic breathing help sleep?

Diaphragmatic breathing can help sleep. It can activate your body’s parasympathetic response, or your relaxation response, boost the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, and reduce stress and anxiety to help you sleep.

What does the 4-7-8 breathing technique do?

The 4-7-8 breathing technique activates your parasympathetic nervous system, lowers stress and anxiety, and improves heart rate variability and blood pressure. It can even reduce pain during childbirth.

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