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How to de-stress & improve your sleep with a 5-minute breathing meditation

Breathing affects the way we feel. If we are anxious or frightened, we breathe faster to fuel our bodies for action. If we are relaxed, we slow down our breathing.

We can feel more relaxed and less anxious by slowing down our breathing and focusing on the breath out. The breath out, or the exhalation, is associated with relaxation. This exercise does two things. It helps you to slow down your breathing, and it helps you to focus on the breath out.

Insomnia results from physiological and emotional over-arousal. Difficulty becoming physically and/or mentally relaxed can lead to trouble with sleep. In order to sleep, people must be able to relax and reduce hyperarousal.

Relaxation training is a method that can reduce physiological and mental over arousal and facilitate sleep. We cannot force ourselves to sleep, but we can set the stage for a good night’s sleep. Reducing hyperarousal by learning to relax and let go of tension can facilitate sleep.

Practicing relaxation training is so important. Like any training program, learning to relax is a process that takes time and practice. The more relaxation training is practiced, the more useful it will be in improving sleep.


Calm breathing is a method of reducing hyperarousal, which is often related to sleep disturbances. Calm breathing involves slowing down the breathing by pausing between breaths, and focusing on the breath out. You are encouraged to practice calm breathing during the day and at night as you are lying in bed preparing for sleep.


Relaxed breathing (sometimes called abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing) signals the body that it is safe to relax. Relaxed breathing is slower and deeper than normal breathing, and it happens lower in the body (the belly rather than the chest).

How to do relaxed breathing:

  • To practice make sure you are sitting or lying comfortably

  • Close your eyes, if you are comfortable doing so

  • Deliberately slow your breathing down

  • Make sure that your breaths are smooth, steady, and continuous - not jerky

  • Breathe in through your nose (not your mouth) for a count of four

  • Pause for a moment

  • Then breathe out your mouth for a count of four

  • Pay particular attention to your out-breath - make sure it is smooth and steady

  • When you breathe out, say a word to yourself that you find relaxing. Use any word, such as “calm,” “relax,” or “peace.” You will say this word silently to yourself as you breathe out.

  • Pause for a moment

  • Repeat this cycle at least 10 times or for about 5 minutes

Am I doing it right? What should I be paying attention to?

Relaxed breathing should be low down in the abdomen (belly), and not high in the chest. You can check this by putting one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. Try to keep the top hand still, your breathing should only move the bottom hand.

Focus your attention on your breath. some people find it helpful to count in their head to begin with (”In ... two ... three ... four ... pause ... Out ... two ... three ... four ... pause ...”).

How long and how often?

  • Practice calm breathing 5 minutes, per day, while awake

  • Practice calm breathing while lying in bed at night in preparation for sleep

Variations and troubleshooting

Find a slow breathing rhythm that is comfortable for you. Counting to 4 is not an absolute rule. Try 3 or 5. The important thing is that the breathing is slow and steady.

Some people find the sensation of relaxing to be unusual or uncomfortable at first, but this normally passes with practice. Do persist and keep practicing.

When we are anxious or threatened, our breathing speeds up in order to get our body ready for danger. An option is to add holding the breath for a count of 5 after the inhalation. This will increase the blood levels of carbon dioxide, which has a sedating effect.

Try this exercise different ways to find the one that works best for you.

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