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Wired at Bedtime? Try These Relaxation Techniques for Sleep

Consider incorporating science-backed relaxation exercises into your wind-down routine. The RISE app will guide you through them (and help you time them right).
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
2022-11-30
Updated
15 MINS
Man trying out relaxation techniques before bed

If you find winding down for bedtime to be a consistent challenge, consider incorporating relaxation techniques into your pre-bed routine. Science-based exercises that promote relaxation can be a great way to prepare both your body and brain for sleep — which not only makes falling asleep easier, but also improves the sleep you get. 

Luckily, you needn’t look any further than your RISE app for pre-sleep relaxation. RISE will guide you through the four main tried-and-true techniques — autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and soothing sounds — and also help you time your relaxation exercises with your ideal sleep schedule. 

Here we’ll cover the science behind why relaxation before bed is important, and walk you through each of the four science-backed techniques more in-depth (including how you can access our audio guides via the app). Finally, we’ll suggest some other calm-promoting strategies to try in concert with these techniques to further boost your chances of achieving a dreamy night’s sleep and a better tomorrow.

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

Why Should I Relax Before Bed?

We all know — perhaps intuitively — that it’s a good idea to “relax” before bed. But why? The short answer is, by purposefully relaxing in the hour or two leading up to bed (what is often referred to as our wind-down routine), we’re allowing our body to carry out biological and chemical processes that enable us to eventually fall asleep. We’ll cover some of the basics here, but for a deeper dive:

From Fight-or-Flight to Rest and Digest

Suffice it to say, a relaxed body and mind is tantamount to getting a good night’s sleep. When we’re worried or stressed, we experience a physiological stress response, where the fight-or-flight part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) becomes activated, and stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. Our heart rate increases, our digestion is suppressed, and more oxygen is delivered to our muscles and brain, making us alert and ready for action. This part of our ANS, which is called the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS, serves an important function during our waking hours — it’s certainly preferable to be alert when we’re driving on the highway in the rain, for instance, or about to give a career-defining presentation — it’s not a place we want to find ourselves in too close to bedtime. 

When we take some time to relax before bed, we are able to tap into our parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, whose job it is to bring our bodily functions back to baseline after a period of arousal. When our PNS takes over, we move from fight-or-flight into a state of “rest and digest” — just where we need to be for restful sleep.

RISE app screenshot showing how to personalize your wind-down activities
The RISE app can help you schedule your evening activities in service of your ideal bedtime! 

Relaxing Before Bed Is Important Because Sleep Is Important

When we engage in behaviors that ultimately have a positive effect on our sleep quality, it means that we’re more likely to meet our sleep need (the genetically-predetermined amount of sleep that each of us needs each night in order to be our best selves — not everyone needs 8 hours), and avoid accruing sleep debt (the amount of missed sleep we owe our bodies, based on this sleep need). 

Getting enough sleep isn’t just about curtailing drowsiness during the day. Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on our health and well-being in myriad ways, including: 

So finding ways to relax before bed isn’t “just” a must for better sleep — your health, relationships, and career may also depend on it.   

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app calculates your sleep debt based on your sleep data over the last two weeks. Keeping sleep debt below 5 hours reduces your risk of experiencing the adverse side-effects associated with sleep deprivation.

  

What Can I Do to Help Me Relax Before Bed?

The Four Science-Backed Relaxation Techniques for Sleep

In the RISE app, we provide audio recordings to guide you through the four most popular and scientifically-potent relaxation exercises. 

These techniques are not only scientifically proven to improve sleep latency (the amount of time it takes us to fall asleep after we’ve turned out the light), they’re also easy as can be to use — you simply need to get yourself into a comfortable position and hit “play” in the RISE app. 

From there, the recorded audio for each will guide you through breathing techniques, visualizations, and other passive exercises designed to calm your body and mind in preparation for sleep. If you’re familiar with body-scanning and/or different types of meditation, some of this may seem familiar.

Unlike similar features available in other apps, RISE also uses your own sleep and energy data to help you pin down a personalized schedule for when to hit play on your favorite recording. (RISE will even send you reminders to help keep your sleep on track!) 

Pro tip: While these techniques are perfect additions to your bedtime routine, they’re not only for bedtime! Feel free to use them throughout the day as needed for stress relief and managing anxiety.

Here are the steps for accessing the guided relaxation audios in the RISE app: 

  • Once you’re in the app, expand the “Habits” pull-up bar (located just above the tab bar) and tap on “+ Add a habit” 
  • From here, go to “Relaxation,” where you can learn about the techniques and listen to the recordings 
  • To add them to your Habits, scroll down to the bottom of the “Relaxation” tab and select “Customize + Add” and then, finally, “Add to my schedule.” 
  • At this point you also have the option of setting up a nightly reminder to start your relaxation session — we recommend setting your alert to go off 15 minutes before your Melatonin Window
  • RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to listen to all four relaxation techniques. 
RISE app screenshot showing relaxation techniques
The RISE app will audio guide you through four scientifically-backed pre-bed relaxation techniques: autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and soothing sounds.

Autogenic Training

“Imagine a warm calm environment with your limbs getting heavier…”

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. 

Fun fact: NASA teaches AT to its astronauts to help them better handle the unique psychophysiological stressors of being in space.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to listen to access their autogenic training guide. 

Who is it good for?

  • Sleepers who have found mindfulness meditation (or other imagination-based techniques) useful but would like a bit more help
  • Sleepers who are willing to practice a technique a few times

Benefits: 

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Whether we realize it or not, many of us tend to take short shallow breaths–something that triggers our fight-or-flight mode. Diaphragmatic breathing — also known as “belly breathing” — is a deep-breathing exercise that encourages one to take full, slow, mindful breaths instead, thus allowing the PNS to take over. Even just 5 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing each day can have a noticeable impact on stress and anxiety. 

The RISE app guides you through a type of diaphragmatic breathing called “box breathing.” The instructions are simple: 

  • Breathe in to the count of four
  • Hold your breath to the count of four
  • Exhale to the count of four
  • Count to four before inhaling again
  • Repeat as needed

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to listen to access their diaphragmatic breathing guide.

Who is it good for?

  • Sleepers who want to only spend a few minutes trying a technique 
  • Sleepers who want to practice anywhere
  • Sleepers who have trouble focusing
  • Sleepers who don’t have health problems that make deep breathing difficult 

Benefits: 

  • Encourages full oxygen exchange, which increases blood oxygen 
  • Slows heart rate and stabilizes blood pressure 
  • Proven effective in treatment of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), phobias, anxiety, and other mental health conditions
  • Focusing on breath can also be a useful tool for breaking out of anxious or ruminative thought cycles that can cause sleep problems

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

One of the body’s reactions to stress is to tense our muscles, as if we’re preparing ourselves to flee a potentially dangerous situation (again with the fight-or-flight mode!). Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) relieves this (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. 

While our audio recording is helpful for getting you started using this technique, this is one you should eventually be able to do on your own.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to listen to access their progressive muscle relaxation guide.

Who is it good for?

  • Sleepers who have found mindfulness meditation (or other imagination-based techniques) useful but would like a bit more help
  • Sleepers who are willing to practice a technique a few times
  • Sleepers who struggle to stay still 
  • Sleepers who don’t have a history of muscle spasms, back problems, or other issues that could be aggravated by tensing groups of muscles 

Benefits of: 

  • Proven to have a positive influence on depression and anxiety
  • Some may experience relief from physical ailments such as headaches, back pain, and irritable bowel syndrome 
  • Lowers heart rate and blood pressure

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 it in your nighttime routine.

The RISE app lets you personalize your soothing soundscape. You can choose from many different sounds commonly associated with sleep — ambient music, car interior, and crackling fire among them — and also select the amount of time you’d like the recording to play (anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours).

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to listen to access their soothing sounds. 

Who is it good for?

  • Sleepers who prefer consistent or masking sounds as they sleep 
  • Sleepers who want to choose how long a session will last
  • Sleepers who have noisy sleeping environments 

Benefits of: 

  • Especially for those in noisier environments, consistent ambient sounds can mask background noise that otherwise might lead to poor sleep
  • Noises that our brains perceive as non-threatening can reduce fight-or-flight response, helping us to de-stress and sleep better

More Tips for Relaxing Before Bed

In addition to our audio-guided relaxation feature, RISE can guide you through a host of other proven habits for better sleep, to help you keep your stress low and energy high. The following bedtime-friendly behaviors — which are all facets of good sleep hygiene — will work in support of your favorite relaxation technique, setting you up for an increased likelihood of sleep (and relaxation) success:

  • Avoid exercising too late: Research shows that strenuous or high-intensity workouts within an hour or two of bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep. (Gentle exercises like yin yoga or stretching, on the other hand, are conducive to healthy sleep and make great additions to your wind-down routine!)
  • Honor cut-off times for food and drink: Similarly, consuming caffeine or alcohol, or eating a heavy meal too late in the day can also leave us wired, buzzed, or uncomfortable leading up to bedtime, and ultimately interfere with sleep. It’s a good idea to decide on personal cut-off times for each of them, depending on your schedule and biology. (RISE can help you figure this out!)
  • Block the blue light: Bright light at night inhibits melatonin production, making us less likely to feel sleepy at bedtime. The blue light emitted by laptops and screens is especially pernicious — which is unfortunate, as this is the preferred way to relax for many of us. If you must Hulu or TikTok before bed (no judgment here — we get it!) consider investing in a pair of blue light blocking glasses to help take the edge off.
  • Brain dump before bed: Giving yourself an opportunity before bed to purge your worries and the next day’s to-do list can prevent racing thoughts that interfere with sleep. You can do this in the RISE app, by adding “Brain Dump” to your Habits, or simply keep a small notebook beside your bed for the purpose of offloading your swirling nighttime thoughts.
  • Add on other relaxation-boosting activities: While they might not be for everyone, the following habits are also science-backed ways to relax before bed. Make sure to set them up as part of your evening routine in the RISE app so you’ll receive reminders to keep your bedtime front-of-mind: 

    Take a warm bath or shower to relax your muscles and bring your body temperature down for sleep
    Meditation calms the mind and has been proven to reduce stress, and may indirectly benefit sleep for this reason
    Massage and/or reflexology can relieve muscle tension, making sleep easier to come by for some 
    Reading a book before bed can take your mind off the day, providing a helpful mental buffer between work and sleep

We encourage you to try out all combinations of these techniques and behaviors over the course of several nights to find what works best for you — everyone’s different! — and then build a wind-down routine around your favorites. You can dive deeper into how to relax before bed, even if you're stressed, here.

Two final things to keep in mind when building your bedtime routine: 

  • Consistency is key: The importance of consistency when it comes to sleep health cannot be overstated — our circadian rhythm, aka the biological clock that determines our sleep-wake cycle and daily energy fluctuations, functions best when we adhere to a regular schedule.
  • Anxiety-sufferers in particular shouldn’t sleep on these tips: While establishing a consistent wind-down routine is something everyone can benefit from, it’s especially crucial for those who struggle with sleep anxiety and/or insomnia.

Let RISE Relax You to Sleep  

As a final note, remember that, while wind-down time is certainly important, better sleep doesn’t hinge entirely on what you do right before bed — choices we make as soon as we wake up can help or hinder our nightly sleep. Improving our sleep hygiene includes making tweaks to our daytime routines and behaviors, as well. Fortunately, many of these sleep-helping behaviors, when performed earlier in the day, make the task of relaxing before bed easier too. Here’s a run-down of how to structure your day for better sleep if you’d like some more in-depth guidance, and the RISE app is also a great resource for scheduling out your day with each night’s sleep in mind. 

Summary FAQs

How can I relax my mind to sleep?

There are breathing, visualization, and other passive relaxation techniques designed to calm your mind (and body) in preparation for sleep — particularly effective are autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and listening to soothing sounds.

Which exercise is best for sleep?

Autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and listening to soothing sounds are great passive relaxation exercises for sleep. For something more active, try yin yoga or gentle stretching before bed.

Muscle relaxation techniques for sleeping

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a tried-and-true relaxation technique that involves alternatively tensing and relaxing all the muscles in the body.

Relaxation exercises for anxiety

The same relaxation techniques that work for sleep also work well for relieving anxiety. Autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and listening to soothing sounds are all scientifically proven to help calm the body and mind.

Relaxation techniques for sleep audio

In the RISE app you’ll find guided audio for the four main science-backed relaxation techniques — autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and soothing sounds.

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