Breathing Exercises for Sleep Problems Related to Stress, Anxiety, and COPD

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Breathing Techniques for Sleep

If you’re having trouble getting adequate rest at night, then breathing techniques for sleep is an option you might consider.

Over 40 million Americans suffer from continuous long-term sleep issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sleep problems can arise as a result of stress and outside distractions, but one of the worst culprits is the use of electronic devices with bright screens too close to bedtime.

This is a terrible idea, because the light emitted from electronic displays disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm. For those folks, getting some help falling asleep is critical.

There are many sleep aid options available, including sleeping masks, soothing pillow sprays, white noise machines, and ergonomically correct pillows filled with gel and water and special fibers.

However, if you’re experiencing bouts of sleeplessness, you may not necessarily need these things to help you fall asleep, though having some tricks on hand—such as breathing techniques—may help fall asleep faster and more peacefully. According to the National Sleep Foundation, getting eight hours of good quality sleep a night is the rule of thumb.

In This Article:

8 Breathing Techniques and Exercises to Sleep Better

The inability to slip into a peaceful slumber without much thought and anxiety is an issue many people struggle with. It may be especially stressful for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) sufferers, who often also deal with sleep disorders due to difficulty breathing.

When sleeplessness like this takes over, it’s best to get out of bed and distract the mind for about 15 minutes, and then return to bed a little bit refreshed and with a new mindset to sleep.

Whether you’re in bed from the start or ready to try again, the following breathing and exercise sleep techniques can help you drift off into sleep quickly and calmly.

1. Parasympathetic Breathing:

The autonomic nervous system encompasses the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, and only one of these systems can be activated at any given time.

Sympathetic breathing is what you do when your body is stressed, whereas parasympathetic breathing allows for a slower heart rate and a calmer state, as well as continuously deep, controlled, and relaxed breaths.

The following are step-by-step methods to complete two different parasympathetic breathing techniques. (You’ll have to get out of bed for these.):

Method 1:

  • Sit comfortably in an upright position on the floor with your legs crossed or on the edge of a chair.
  • Your eyes may be either open or closed, but definitely relaxed.
  • Next, focus your awareness on yourself, your body, and your breathing. At the same time, do not worry about any stresses of your daily life.
  • As you adjust your focus to your internal world, this allows you to become aware of your breathing. As a result, you’ll notice your chest and belly expand as you inhale and then collapse on the exhale. Sounds from your breath might also move through your nose at the back of your throat. Your focus then shifts to a positive mental attitude.
  • Next, change the length and speed of your breathing, with each breath becoming slower and longer. Your exhale will also be longer and slower than your inhale. This will activate the parasympathetic nervous system while canceling any stress within the body.
  • Aim to stay in this meditative state as long you can, but remember that this is just a practice and not a competitive exercise.

Method 2:

  • Sit comfortably with a straight spine, placing a clock in front of you at about the height of your waist. This allows you to stare comfortably at the clock with your eyes partially closed. A clock with a second hand will help you see the seconds ticking.
  • Inhale when the second hand is at 12 o’clock, and continue to inhale until the hand reaches 10 o’clock.
  • Exhale in a controlled way that allows you to be fully exhaled after 20 seconds, or when the second hand reaches the 20 second position.
  • With the second hand at 20 minutes past the hour, inhale for 10 seconds to the 30-minutes-past position. Then, exhale for 10 seconds to 40 minutes past before inhaling until 50 minutes past, and finally exhaling back at 12 o’clock. In other words, you will continuously inhale for 10 seconds and exhale for 10 seconds, making each breath last 20 seconds. You will be taking three breaths in a minute.
  • Continue this method for five to 10 minutes, and then increase the inhale and exhale period to 30 seconds each time. You will be taking two full breaths per minute.
  • Eventually, you can give up staring at the clock and simply continue breathing freehand for the five to 10 minutes. You will want to slow your breath to a very relaxed state with a natural rhythm.
  • Try to spend 15 to 25 minutes daily on this parasympathetic breathing meditation technique.

2. The Stimulating Breath:

Another breathing technique to fall asleep that Dr. Andrew Weil, an Arizona-based, Harvard-trained doctor, developed (based on yogic breathing techniques) and teaches to his patients is the Stimulating Breath (or Bellows Breath), which is meant to increase vital energy and make you more alert.

The practice here is to breathe in and out of your nose as rapidly as you can, while keeping your mouth closed. It’s not a quiet exercise. The ins and outs need to be the same length but short and rapid. For every second, you should be able to do three or four in-and-out breaths, creating a quick movement in the diaphragm, like a bellows (hence the name). For the first few times, don’t go beyond 15 seconds. Build up towards one minute over a period of about two weeks.

3. Breath Counting:

This exercise can also teach you how to breathe to fall asleep. Though it seems simple, this Zen technique is actually quite tricky to master, but with practice and focus it can be achieved. Sit on the floor or a cushion with your legs crossed, your spine straight, and your head titled slightly forward. Close your eyes and take a gentle but deep breath, and breathe naturally and normally for a minute or so.

When you’re ready to begin, count one as you exhale, then two on the next exhale, up to five. Do not count higher than five. If you do, then you know your mind has wandered. It’s really a form of meditation; try to do it for 10 minutes and then you should feel calm and relaxed.

Breathing techniques for COPD include certain ways to fall asleep such as an exercise called the Tongue Hold. In this exercise, press as much of your tongue as you can to the roof of your mouth, hold it in place, and slowly breathe in and out from the nose in a controlled manner. This exercise simulates how you breathe at night, so it can help train your body to breathe better when you have COPD.

Breathing techniques for sleep paralysis involve the same kinds of techniques used when suffering from an anxiety attack, which makes sense because sleep paralysis can be utterly terrifying. The best approach when in the middle of a sleep paralysis attack is to focus your attention on your breathing. Breathe in and then exhale out through the mouth or nose with intention, so you hear it. Do this until you completely wake up or feel calmer.

4. Pursed-Lip Breathing:

This technique is easy, simple, and very effective. The idea behind it is to exhale for twice as long as you inhale. This type of breathing will help you release air trapped in the lungs while also reducing the amount of breaths taken as you extend exhalation.

Your shoulders should be relaxed. Take a normal breath for two counts, pucker your lips in a similar way to whistling, and then exhale for four counts. Try to complete three or four rounds of this technique.

5. Diaphragmatic Breathing:

Diaphragmatic breathing is also called abdominal or belly breathing. This technique allows your diaphragm to do all the work while you breathe through your nose and focus on your belly filling with air. The method can be done lying down or sitting up.

For the technique, keep your shoulders back and one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. When you breathe deeply for two seconds, your belly will stick out and look slightly bloated. Feel the air expand your stomach, and then breathe out through the mouth.

6. Yoga Breathing:

Alternate nostril breathing is a big part of yoga, and it may be perfect when you’re trying to fall asleep at night. To practice this technique, start by placing your right thumb on your right nostril, and breathe in through the left nostril. You will then take your right ring finger and place it over your left nostril before exhaling from the right nostril.

With your ring finger over the left nostril, inhale from the right before switching to the right side by putting your thumb over the right nostril and exhaling from the left nostril.

Another yoga breathing technique is called lion’s breath, where you will exhale out bad energy and put yourself in a more relaxed state. For this method, take a deep breath through the nose. For breathing out, tilt your head back, close your eyes, and stick out your tongue and breathe out like a lion.

7. Brahmari – Humming Bee Breath:

In Sanskrit, the word brahmari translates to “bee.” This breathing technique is also called humming bee breath due to the sound you make when this breath is practiced. The breath helps calm the nervous system to allow you to sleep well. It is also a technique recommend for anxiety and for women in labor.

For this breathing technique, take a deep inhalation through the nose, and on the exhale, you will hear a humming sound in the throat. Both the exhalation and inhalation should be slow and steady.

Close your eyes and breathe through your nose on the inhale; while on the exhale, you will close off your ears with your index fingers. You will also keep your eyes closed while making a humming sound.

8. Buteyko Breathing Technique:

The Buteyko breathing technique is named after Ukrainian doctor Konstantin Pavlovich, who formulated this method in the 1950s. The method is based on the theory that many conditions like asthma are caused by increased breathing, or hyperventilation.

For the Buteyko method, sit in a comfortable upright position with a straight back on the floor or in a chair. You can open or close your eyes; however, the point is to remain relaxed. You will also breathe only through your nose with your mouth closed. Next, take two or three small breaths while breathing into the belly and not into the chest.

You will then gently hold the breath, as your face, neck, and shoulders are as relaxed as possible. Continue to hold the breath until you need to inhale again; then, exhale and inhale normally before taking small breaths for about three minutes. Repeat this process of holding the breath as long as it feels natural.

At some point, you will feel the need to let out your breath, or to take several deep breaths after holding it in. Continue to breathe like this until your body calms down, which will focus your awareness on relaxation.

Try spending eight to 12 minutes doing the Buteyko breathing technique twice during the day, and another time before bed.

How Breathing Exercises Can Overcome Sleep Problems

The simple act of breathing is something that escapes many people, because as strange as it may sound, a good many people around you miss a breath now and again. As automatic as it is, breathing does sometimes need to be controlled and managed. Stop for a moment and pay attention to the normal fluctuation of your breath going in and out. Do that five times. It wouldn’t be surprising if you suddenly felt calmer.

Breathing techniques do work because they can add oxygen, slow down the nervous system, or induce a meditative state, depending on the exercise. So it isn’t necessarily the act of breathing in a certain way alone that produces the calming effect, it’s also the act of meditating without knowing it.

There are also other key benefits of breathing exercises. The following are four ways the breathing exercises mentioned in this article benefit your sleep and overall health:

1. Reduces Stress:

Slow, deep-breathing exercises when you are stressed can activate the parasympathetic nervous system while moving you away from the fight-or-flight response, which becomes a problem during times of stress.

In the same way, breathing exercises before bed can help you get to sleep. When practicing deep breathing in bed, you essentially give the body permission to relax.

Focused breathing also forces the mind to concentrate on the breathing exercise, rather on whatever you’d be thinking about, which may keep you from sleeping.

2. Lowers Anxiety:

Breathing exercises could also help people experiencing any type of anxiety, which may also prevent them from sleeping. A study published in the journal PLOS One in 2012 found that 30-minute breathing techniques had musicians feeling less anxious and tense.

The breathing exercises can also help ease anxiety in those with COPD. Other research published in the journal Respiratory Care in 2014 showed that 46 men hospitalized due to COPD had reduced both anxiety and shortness of breath when they practiced breathing techniques.

3. Decreases Blood Pressure:

Breathing techniques might also do wonders for people with high blood pressure, which could also decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In a study of 21,563 people published in the journal Hypertension Research in 2005, researchers found that blood pressure was significantly lower after the participants performed six rounds of deep breathing exercises for 30 seconds each round.

The American Heart Association also included breathing exercises as an alternative method for regulating blood pressure in 2013.   

4. Improves COPD:

As mentioned, there are various breathing techniques for COPD that might also help you sleep and reduce anxiety. Since breathing is harder for those with COPD, most of these individuals often avoid exercise and other activities. However, this will weaken the body’s muscles while causing further breathing difficulty.

That being said, research shows that breathing techniques and exercise can have a positive effect on COPD, especially when intensive pulmonary care is not available.

A 2013 study in particular found that deep breathing exercises would improve labored breathing as well as increase the lung’s ability to take in more oxygen, improving quality of life overall.

Final Thoughts on Breathing Techniques for Sleep

Try the exercises above and see which of them might work for you. Give them a fair chance and if they fail, then simply find a quiet space somewhere (even if it’s just lying down in bed) and pay attention the natural rhythm of your breath. This alone will bring a sense of calm and help you sleep better.

Also Read:

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