Have you ever tried counting down your breaths, in order to get to sleep?
Turning off the mind is one key way to finally getting some sleep. But many of us are unable – and sometimes conflictingly unwilling – to do so once we’ve made it into bed.
Oftentimes, we know that turning off the mind is boring, feels unproductive, and sometimes we just simply “can’t” do it.
Not only that, but adding insult to injury, we feel stressed and anxious about this inability or unwillingness to just let go and let ourselves fall asleep – increasing our heart rate and speed of shallow breaths – thus, compounding our anti-sleep state.
Counting Sheep For Sleep?
One solution to this (arising from childhood stories, cartoons or other folklore) is sheep counting, with or without producing in the mind’s eye the image of fuzzy furred ‘baa-sheep’ jumping over or out of something … sometimes even off the edge of a cliff, when we’re feeling particularly ungenerous to our own selves. (If you click the “sheep counting” link above, scroll down half way for a minor discussion, along with a bit of humorous commentary on the origins of the phrase “counting sheep”).
But how often does this actually work when getting oneself to fall asleep?
To overcome some of the flaws in the ethereal sheep counting technique, it is highly advisable to simply count oneself down to sleep. For those of us particularly challenged with a busy-body mind and propensity towards anxiety, an added dose of well-timed and sufficiently deep breaths may be necessary.
Silently counting down from 100 – with or without the breath component – is not rocket science. However, as with rocket science, even the simplest techniques work better when somewhat understood and incrementally perfected.
Understanding and Perfecting Counting Down Your Breaths for Sleep
To start, let go of perfection.
Prepare to count down your breaths with a relaxed and open mind, believing that it will work, but not getting stressed over the fact that it sometimes might not. This does tend to work on the self-fulfilling prophecy principle.
How and Why Does Counting Backwards Work?
An end in sight
When counting down your breaths, you know that there is an end to the exercise. If you are still not asleep by the time you reach 1, you can try something else – it is not an infinite exercise that feels futile from the start.
Dissipate, not stimulate
Unlike counting sheep, where counting up stimulates the mind, counting down actually relaxes the mind. This works on the simple self-hypnosis principle, with a more involved Sleep Control Technique taught in the world-renowned Silva Method seminars.
Prime the mind, but just a little
While being relaxing, counting backwards in the correct order requires just enough concentration to keep out other thoughts that can otherwise keep the mind busy and unable to fall asleep – you can’t really do both, count backwards and think about something else. Some people find the added challenge of counting down by 3’s from 300 more suited to their mind’s attention requirements.
Process over content
To reduce anxiety over losing one’s place in the backward count, it is important to prioritize in one’s mind the process of the count over the exactness of the count – it doesn’t really matter that you lose your place if your mind drifts off into some busy thoughts as long as you bring it back to some number in the count, roughly to where you last remember being, and continue from there. No need to restart from 100 every time, as that defeats the “end in sight” idea.
Kick It Up A Notch Using Your Breath
Your breathing in and of itself induces a state of relaxation when it is deep and intentional. Deep intentional breathing physically induces an anti-anxiety response while also quieting the mind.
Incorporating a deep breath on every count deepens the relaxation and gives busy-minded people an additional process to simultaneously focus on – something physical to add to the mindful technique.
Increasing the depth and length of each breath tends to simulate the asleep breath pattern, bringing the body physically closer to the state of sleep.
Incorporating the breath on each count also slows down the count, giving the mind sufficient time to turn off and enter the sleep state before reaching 1 in the count down.
Breathing ‘not too fast and not too slow, but just right’ creates the right balance between the agitation of going through the motions of speed counting and the boredom that lets the mind slip back into busy thoughts.
The just right speed results in the relaxation that brings on sleep. Breathing in on the first part of the number and out on the second tends to generate the right balance – for example, on counting …92, 91, 90… breathe in on ninety – and breathe out on – two, breathe in on ninety – and breathe out on – one, breathe in on nine- and breathe out on – two…zzzzz…..
Use the ‘counting down your breaths for sleep’ technique when first going to bed, and if staying asleep is also a challenge, apply this technique multiple times in a night if awakened before it is time to get up.
Now, relax and count down your breaths for a nice sound sleep.
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