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How To Relax Before Bed (Even When You’re Stressed)

Relaxing before bed as part of a well-timed wind-down routine is key for good sleep, but daytime behaviors matter, too. RISE can guide you through all of it.
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
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. Learn more.
Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Published
2022-12-30
Updated
21 MINS
Woman sitting on couch in lotus position with headphones relaxing before bed

In our deadline-driven, always-on-the-go world, returning to a place of calm at the end of the day can be a challenge for many of us. But with some conscious effort and a few tweaks to your daily routine, relaxation–and, subsequently, sleep–may be easier to come by than you think. 

Establishing a well-timed and mindful pre-bed wind-down routine is a big part of it, but many of our daytime behaviors also determine how readily we’re able to relax in the evening, and how well we’re able to sleep at night. The RISE sleep and energy tracker app can guide you through all of this, from helping you map out a relaxing, individualized wind-down routine to offering tips for how to plan your days and nights in accordance with your real-time sleep need.

Here we’ll cover why relaxing before bed is essential, and walk you through what you need to do to get there. Along the way, we’ll show you all the ways that RISE can help you destress, sleep better, and have more energetic and productive days. 

Why Should I Relax Before Bed?

Relaxing before bed doesn’t just feel good, it’s also a crucial component of maintaining our sleep health (and our health in general). Here’s a quick run-down of the science:

1. It supports the biological processes essential for sleep

By intentionally relaxing prior to sleep, we’re supporting the work that our body and brain are doing behind the scenes to try to ready us for bed. This “work” is the job of two separate but interlinked biological mechanisms which together control our sleep-wake cycle. This is known as the two-process model of sleep regulation, and the two mechanisms are:

  • Circadian rhythm: This internal time-keeping system runs on roughly a 24-hour clock and is responsible for regulating things like digestion, body temperature, and daily energy fluctuations. It also dictates our sleep-wake schedule by controlling the release of the sleepiness hormone melatonin and the wakefulness hormone cortisol. (For a deeper dive, we’ve written about the circadian rhythm here.)
  • Homeostatic sleep pressure: We become sleepier over the course of the waking day thanks, in part, to a chemical called adenosine. The longer we’re awake, the more adenosine accumulates in our brains, resulting in a build-up of sleep pressure. As we sleep, the day’s accumulated adenosine is purged from our systems, allowing us to (hopefully) start each new day feeling awake and refreshed. 

Ideally, these two processes are perfectly synchronized so that peak melatonin production occurs alongside peak adenosine accumulation–meaning we reach peak sleepiness–right at our desired bedtime. Both are sensitive mechanisms, however, easily influenced by our behaviors and environment, and so things like stress, too much light at night, caffeine too late in the day, and/or an inconsistent sleep-wake schedule can throw one or both processes out of whack. 

But on the flipside, by keeping our stress in check (especially in the evenings) and practicing good sleep hygiene, we can support these natural processes and their alignment with one another, leading to better sleep and overall health. More on how to do both, soon. 

2. It puts our fight-or-flight response on pause 

During times of stress or excitement, our body responds by thrusting us into fight-or-flight mode. In this state, the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS, takes over, and stimulating hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine are released, which increase our heart rate and blood pressure, slow our digestion, and cause our blood sugar levels to rise. 

While this “stress response” is evolution’s way of keeping us safe in the face of an immediate physical threat (i.e. a charging bull or a burning building), our body doesn’t necessarily know the difference between stress caused by a predator or an unnerving work email. As such, in our competitive, productivity-centered, 24-hour culture, many of us spend a large chunk of our days (and nights) in a state of physiological hyperarousal, courtesy of the SNS, which is antithetical to both sleep and relaxation. 

But when we intentionally take time to disconnect and de-stress during the day (and especially at night), we’re able to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, whose function it is to bring our bodily systems back to neutral after a stressful event. From this calmer place, sometimes referred to as our “rest and digest” mode, relaxation–and, subsequently, sleep–are much easier to come by.

3. It provides a needed buffer between obligations and sleep

Even when we’re not working, it can still feel like we’re on-the-clock–we may find ourselves checking our phones compulsively to see if so-and-so responded yet to the budget request we sent, composing presentations in our heads, or going over and over the inane thing we said during yesterday’s office-wide meeting. And outside of work concerns there’s no shortage of additional obligations–insurance companies to call, kids’ lunches to pack, dry-cleaning to pick up, etc. As common as it is to try to fill our days to the brim with productive activities, this habit has negative implications for our health and well-being, often resulting in chronic stress and even burnout. And when we’re bogged down by work- or home-related rumination at bedtime, our sleep can suffer.

Conversely, engaging in relaxing activities at the end of the day gives our brains a much-needed break from the to-dos of the day, and studies show this practice can reduce psychological strain. It also gives us an opportunity to move away from the anxiety-provoking thought-cycles that threaten to keep us up at night. 

The Importance of Sleep Can’t Be Overstated

It’s worth stating explicitly that relaxing before bed is important because sleep is important. When we make small changes to our days and nights that positively impact our sleep (like cultivating a calming pre-bed wind-down routine), we’re going to have an easier time meeting our sleep need (the amount of sleep that each of us requires each night in order to function optimally–the number varies from person to person), and, in doing so, we’ll also stave off sleep debt (taking our sleep need into account, how much missed sleep we owe our bodies). 

High sleep debt is more than just a minor inconvenience–it can torpedo our emotional, physical, and mental health, making us more susceptible to various diseases, depression and anxiety, and interpersonal challenges. It also adversely affects our energy and cognitive performance

Sleep loss and anxiety can also form a negative feedback loop, and, unless we consciously intervene to break the cycle, the two can continue to perpetuate each other indefinitely.  

How Can I Relax Before Bed?

Establishing a good wind-down routine is an essential facet of our sleep hygiene (i.e. the collection of daily behaviors and habits scientifically proven to make or break our sleep health). Though everyone’s ideal wind-down will look slightly different, the point is to begin engaging in activities that calm our bodies and minds 1-2 hours before bed. This helps us disengage from the demands and thought loops of our waking life, and gets us into a relaxed state that is more conducive to drifting off. 

Consider incorporating the following into your nightly bedtime routine to help you destress and sleep better:

1. Ditch the screens, if possible 

Screens are a sleep-busting triple-whammy. Not only does the blue light emitted by our laptops, phones, and other electronic devices interfere with melatonin production, much of what we do via our devices (responding to work emails, streaming true crime docuseries, going down the rabbit hole of the latest social media feud, video games, etc.) promotes cognitive arousal that overrides the natural processes that otherwise would be nudging us toward a good night’s sleep as well as makes it easy to lose track of time and then lose out on sleep. Instead, try:

  • Reading a physical book: A great way to get out of your own head without the melatonin-reducing side effects, one study found 68% of people felt their stress was diminished after just 6 minutes of continual reading. From there you can see how reading may improve perceived sleep quality.
  • Listen to an audiobook or podcast: Similarly, an audiobook can give you a break from your own thoughts without inundating you with sleep-damaging blue light. (Just be careful that the content isn’t so compelling that you find yourself putting off sleep to find out what happens next!)
  • Listen to gentle music: Music has the power to mitigate our stress response, and, though the research isn’t quite conclusive, some experts believe that slow, quiet music with minimal modulation (change in key or tonality) can help with insomnia, while relaxing music has been shown to improve sleep efficiency in patients with PTSD. (You might not even have to listen to “sedating” music at nighttime for it to positively affect your sleep.) Choose music or sounds with a slow rhythm, anything that has a calming effect on you. New age and classical music may be particularly effective.
  • If you must stream, use blue-light blocking glasses: Realistically, we know not everyone can avoid screens at night. Alternatively, invest in a pair of blue-light blocking glasses to wear while you stream or scroll, making sure to put them on at least 90 minutes before bedtime. RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to be reminded when to put on their orange glasses. 
  • And identify a bedtime and stick to it: Again, if screens are a must for unwinding at the end of the day, make sure you have a bedtime in mind. It can be all too easy to binge-watch your way into revenge bedtime procrastination, which can cause sleep debt to climb and lead to more stress over time. Choosing shows with episodic programming (when a story is told within a single episode), can help you avoid binge-watching and missing your bedtime.
RISE app screenshot reminding you when to wear blue-light blocking glasses
The RISE app can remind you when to put on your blue-light blocking glasses before bed.

 

2. Say no to nightcaps and big meals too close to bedtime

While alcohol may make us feel worry-free and bed-ready–it is technically a depressant, after all–any pleasant effects are short-lived. Even a small amount too late in the day can mess with our rest, resulting in fragmented, non-restorative sleep, which often leads to sleep debt and a subsequent spike in anxiety the next day. This doesn’t mean you have to abstain altogether, however–RISE recommends cutting yourself off 3-4 hours before bedtime to give your body time to process the alcohol and avoid sleep problems. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their digital last call.

Big meals late at night are similarly a no-no. Not only is gastric discomfort antithetical to relaxation, but a hard-working digestive system can increase sleep latency (meaning it takes us longer to fall asleep) and make the sleep we do get more fitful. If you’re hungry before bed, a small snack is okay (try to keep it under 600 calories), but the recommended cut-off for larger meals is 2-3 hours before sleep. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to know when to eat their last meal.

RISE app screenshot showing you when to have your last large meal of the day
The RISE app can determine the best time for your last meal (typically 2-3 hours before your bedtime).

3. Journal or try a “brain dump” 

Even just five minutes of “evening writing” has been shown to make it easier to relax before bed. By getting our worries—especially those related to future to-dos—organized on paper before bed, we’re giving our brain a break from the stressful cycling thoughts that can trigger our fight-or-flight. Or you can simply use the RISE app by adding the “brain dump” feature to your habits, and offload tomorrow’s nagging to-do list directly into the app each night.

Bonus tip: If you’re especially susceptible to rumination that keeps you awake, you may also consider blocking off 30 minutes of “worry time” into a scheduled time slot each day. By giving our worries a designated daily container, we train our brains to more readily distinguish between when it’s time to worry and when it’s time to relax. This cognitive behavioral therapy-based technique not only combats insomnia, but also may reduce anxiety and stress more generally.   

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

RISE app screenshot showing the brain dump feature which you can use to dump your future worries
Dump your future worries into the RISE app using the Brain Dump feature. RISE will even send you reminders to keep your wind-down schedule running on time.

4. Practice gentle stretching or yoga

While we want to avoid strenuous exercise that can raise our body temperature and elevate our stress hormones too close to bedtime, gentle exercise like stretching and slow yoga (performed in low-lit conditions) can help us relax, both mentally and physically, in preparation for sleep. Yoga that incorporates deep breathing techniques (or Pranayama in Sanskrit) may be especially potent, as taking deep, controlled breaths aids in self-regulation of the nervous system (allowing us to transition from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system). You can use the search terms “yoga for sleep” or “bedtime yoga” to find beginner-friendly videos and tutorials online, and the following styles of yoga are also suitable for adding to your pre-bed self-care routine:

  • Yin yoga is a slower-paced, meditative style of yoga that incorporates deep stretching and longer holds to target denser tissues such as ligaments, joints, fascia, and bones.
  • Restorative yoga involves holding restful postures for longer periods of times, often with the help of supportive props like blocks, bolsters, and straps.      
  • Yoga nidra, which means “yogic sleep,” is functionally closer to guided meditation than it is to other movement-based yoga styles. In yoga nidra, practitioners recline on their backs–traditionally in corpse pose–while the instructor guides them into a state of deep relaxation. A 2020 study showed that even 11 minutes of yoga nidra each day, when practiced for 30 consecutive days, resulted in self-reported improvements in stress, sleep quality, and overall well-being among study participants.

5. Take a warm shower or bath 

At night, our body temperature drops by a few degrees. By supporting this decrease in temperature (i.e. by opening a window or setting the thermostat to a lower temperature at night), we can help our circadian rhythm perform its sleep-readying processes. Perhaps counterintuitively, taking a warm bath or shower can help bring our core temperature down to where it needs to be for sleep. This is because the heat draws our blood vessels to the surface of our skin, which ultimately has a cooling effect when we’re exposed to the cooler air post-bath. 

A warm bath also has the bonus effect of relaxing our muscles, increasing circulation, and aiding in the elimination of metabolic waste

6. Lean on your favorite relaxation techniques

We’ve gone much more in-depth into the most effective relaxation exercises for sleep here, but here’s a quick summary of the top four science-backed relaxation techniques to use for stress relief and a better night’s sleep. Guided audio for each is available in the RISE app. 

  • Autogenic training: During an autogenic relaxation (AT) session, you will be guided through a series of passive sensory suggestions — much like a guided meditation — related to heaviness, warmth, and other sensations in different parts of your body. Through this process, one enters a “pre-sleep” state that induces a relaxation response. 
  • Diaphragmatic breathing: Also known as “belly breathing,” diaphragmatic breathing is a deep-breathing exercise that encourages full, slow, mindful breaths that engage the PNS. (Even just 5 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing each day can have a noticeable impact on stress and anxiety.)
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) relieves our (often unconscious) muscle tension by prompting us to contract different muscles or muscle groups on an inhale, and relax them on the exhale, working through the whole body. This technique makes us more conscious of where and how we hold stress and tension in our bodies, and familiarizes us with the sensation of releasing it.
  • Listening to soothing sounds: While there’s disagreement among sleep experts regarding the impact of sound on sleep, many people feel that certain sounds help them enter a relaxed state (a fan or white noise machine, for instance). If you believe that ambient noise works in service of your sleep, there’s no reason to not include recordings of soothing sounds in your nighttime routine.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to listen to all four relaxation techniques. 

 

RISE app screenshot showing you different relaxation techniques
The RISE app will audio-guide you through the four most popular science-supported relaxation techniques.

Sleep Environment Plays a Role in Relaxation (and Sleep), Too

Keep in mind that your surroundings can have a big impact on your ability to relax before bed. Just as a loud television, fluorescent overhead lights, or a hot, stuffy bedroom can result in poor sleep, such environmental inputs can make calmness hard to come by as well (which, in turn, pushes sleep further from our grasp!). 

Ideally, you’ll be able to carry out your wind-down routine in a quiet, cool (but not cold!) dimly lit room. If such a space doesn’t come ready-made, using ear plugs or ear buds (for listening to gentle music or soothing sounds) and your blue light blocking glasses can provide some protection. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to listen to be reminded to check their sleep environment before bed. 

RISE app screenshot reminding you to check that your environment is ready for sleep and relaxation
The RISE app’s “Check Your Environment” habit can remind you to prime your space so that it’s relaxation and sleep-friendly.

Timing Your Wind-Down Routine with RISE

As we touched on, our circadian rhythm also dictates the fluctuations in our energy levels throughout the day. While the exact timing and duration of these peaks and dips varies from person to person and from day to day, the pattern is always the same:

  • You wake up and feel sleep inertia, or a period of grogginess 
  • You get your first peak in energy in the morning 
  • You go into your afternoon slump 
  • You get a second-wind energy peak in the late afternoon or early evening
  • Your energy winds down until bedtime

Our wind-down routine should kick off 1-2 hours before our scheduled bedtime, and should include our relaxing, sleep-promoting activities, as well as our bedtime. (Make sure to take into account your sleep efficiency, which is the amount of time you typically spend in bed not sleeping. For most, adding a 30-minute buffer to their sleep need is a good place to start.)

It’s also important to note that when we’re carrying a lot of sleep debt, our sleep need temporarily increases as our body attempts to make up for lost sleep. If this seems complicated, don’t fret–the RISE app calculates it all for you in real time, so that knowing your sleep need and ideal bedtime each day is simply a tap away.  

And the RISE app also helps you time your wind-down routine so that it aligns with your ideal bedtime on any given night, so you can focus on relaxing instead of crunching numbers. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their nightly wind-down routine and reminder. 

How Else Can I Improve My Sleep (and Stress)?

While a purposeful wind-down routine will go a long way in helping you relax before bed, our nighttimes don’t occur in a vacuum. Much of what we do (or don’t do) during the day impacts the state we find ourselves in come evening. When we routinely have trouble sleeping, it’s a good idea to rethink our days from the morning on.

The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits to help you unwind and sleep better. 

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

Here are a few highlights:  

  • Get sunlight in the morning: Sunlight first thing in the morning cues our circadian clock to begin the slow countdown to bedtime, making us more likely to feel wind-down ready in the evening. 
  • Harness your natural energy peaks: When we take advantage of our two energy peaks we tend to get more accomplished during the day, which means we’re more readily able to log off and relax before bed. 
  • Move your body: Just because we should abstain from vigorous exercise late at night doesn’t mean we should opt out altogether. Exercising earlier in the day is great for mitigating stress and improving our nightly sleep
  • Switch to decaf in the afternoon: Caffeine makes us feel more alert because it blocks our adenosine receptors. While this is good news for our morning selves, drinking coffee too late in the day can disrupt our homeostatic sleep pressure so we don’t have enough adenosine built up come bedtime. Caffeine can stay in our system for up to 12 hours, so it’s a good idea to limit intake after the first few hours of the day to avoid getting caught up in a vicious cycle of sleep loss and stress. 
  • Beware of evening naps: Naps tap the sleep pressure release valve, which is why we love them. But it’s also why they can be dangerous. While napping has many benefits, if we nap away the adenosine we need for our nightly sleep, we run the risk of sabotaging our bedtime, as well as the following day. As a rule of thumb, nap during your regular circadian dip in energy (RISE will tell you when this is!).
  • Stick to a schedule: Our circadian health thrives when we follow a consistent daily routine. In particular, keeping our sleep and wake times consistent is one of the best things we can do to ensure that our circadian processes are running smoothly. 

Beware So-Called “Sleep Aids”

On a final note, we caution you against the use of sleep aids (unless they’re used under medical supervision for diagnosed sleep disorders) and other so-called sleep-enhancing substances like alcohol or cannabis. While these devices might be tempting as a quick fix, they’re going to hurt your sleep (and worsen your stress) in the long term. Let RISE help you improve your sleep and stress the right way by setting up healthy habits that will benefit you for years to come. 

Relax Before Bed the Right Way with RISE

At RISE, we’re here to support you on your journey to decrease stress, sleep better, and have more energy each day. While these pre-bed relaxation suggestions and sleep tips are tried-and-true winners that will benefit most people on their journey to healthy, naturalistic sleep, you may eventually settle on a wind-down routine that looks a bit different from what we’ve covered here. That’s great! At the end of the day, keeping your stress in check and your sleep debt low is what matters most.

Summary FAQs

Why is it important to relax before bedtime?

Relaxing before bed allows us to naturally transition from our daytime obligations into a restful state conducive to sleep. We sleep better, have more energy during the day, and are less likely to experience chronic stress and burnout.

Things to do before bed to help you sleep

Any activities that promote relaxation are great for sleep. You can try reading, journaling, or practice relaxation techniques like autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or listening to soothing sounds. Gentle stretching or yoga and/or a warm shower or bath can also relax us and help us sleep.

How to relax before bed when stressed?

Try journaling or doing a “brain dump” to offload your worries and tomorrow’s to-do list, which research suggests can alleviate the problem of racing thoughts at bedtime. Relaxation techniques like autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or listening to soothing sounds can also help relax you for sleep, and with consistent use may even help with stress management long-term.

How to relax in bed at night?

When you’re already in bed and struggling to relax, relaxation techniques are a great passive option. We recommend autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or listening to soothing sounds to help calm both your body and mind.

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