Learn to Relax and Sleep Like a Baby

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Medical Editor: Dennis Lee, MD

Think about how easy it is for a baby or small child to fall asleep. We're born with the instinct to relax and sleep when our bodies or minds need a break. Over the years, it becomes necessary to control and even suppress these natural urges to rest, since we must remain alert as we attend school, learn professions, go to work, or care for a family. Many people spend years conditioning themselves to perform well despite feelings of tiredness. While no one would argue that suppressing tiredness can be a necessary skill, it can impair our ability to actually "let go" and relax when we do find the time.

Relaxation is also a uniquely individual activity. Napping or just doing nothing might be your idea of relaxation, but this amount of inactivity might drive someone else crazy. Others may relax by participating in sports or undertaking physical challenges, but some people would find these activities stressful. Whatever your idea of relaxation, the following tips can help you retrain and regain some of those lost relaxation skills:

  1. Give yourself permission for some downtime. Stop ruminating about work or personal problems or tasks. If it helps, make a to-do list of issues and projects and put it aside during your relaxation time. That way, you won't worry about forgetting or neglecting any responsibilities after your break.


  2. Decide if you're interested in a structured relaxation program, such as courses in meditation, yoga, or martial arts. Some may find this kind of training helpful; others may feel that adding another scheduled activity adds to their stress.


  3. Try some short, simple exercises such as the Muscle Relaxation for Stress and Insomnia, Meditation for Reducing Stress and Improving Health, or 3 Minutes to Stress Relief!


  4. Practice other positive health habits such as getting exercise and eating well. The healthier your body is, the better it can function in all areas, including relaxation. An exhausted, "burned out" state isn't going to bring on restorative or strengthening relaxation.


  5. If necessary, force yourself to take emotional time-out for relaxation. Practice shutting out stressful thoughts and images for a few minutes at a time to start out. Imagery exercises (visualizing a comforting or pleasurable setting) or breathing exercises (paying attention to the breathing process and taking slow, deep breaths) can help redirect your thoughts.


  6. Accept help. Talk to a loved one or counselor about your stress. The very act of sharing can provide a much-needed release of anger and frustration.


  7. Don't always equate relaxation with sleep. Particularly if you suffer from stress-induced insomnia, daytime napping can just make your nights more wakeful. Instead, focus on an activity that gives you pleasure.


  8. Remember that the best form of relaxation is finding and participating in something that brings you joy -- whether it be alone or with others, sedentary or active, goal-directed or aimless -- find whatever is it that brings you relaxation and peace.

Last Editorial Review: 7/2/2008




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