No, I Can’t Just Relax! Why Relaxation for Insomnia Sometimes Doesn’t Work
Why relaxation for insomnia sometimes doesn't work
So you are ready to go to bed. You’ve made your environment comfortable, removed all distractions, switched off your phone, got the temperature in the room right, sprinkled some calming fragrances around, had a cup of relaxing herbal tea, yet you are lying in bed feeling tired but far from being calm. Or maybe you woke up at night and after a trip to the toilet returned to bed wide awake.
You know you shouldn’t panic, so you try breathing mindfully, meditating or listening to calming music, or maybe do some progressive muscle relaxation which helps somewhat but still not enough to fall asleep.
You may be wondering what is going on? This is especially confusing when some of these tricks, techniques and practices used to work in the past. The reasons for that and solutions can be quite different. So let’s look at some of them:
High charge in the body
When you spend the whole day multitasking, desperately trying to find a solution to a pressing problem or if you had a fight with someone, there’s a high chance that by the end of the day you remain in survival mode. Survival or stress response, also known as fight-or-flight, gets activated when there’s a threat, real or perceived, and the body is charged up to fight or flee. And even though it’s your time to rest, there are still many stress chemicals in your system that continue to propel your body to action. Even if at the same time you are feeling tired. Sometimes it is accompanied by feelings of anxiousness, irritation, frustration or anger, sometimes not. But if you experience a lot of activation in your body that wouldn’t settle by resting, it could be an indication that you need to get moving.
For this, the usual advice to get out of bed and start doing something physical can work quite well. This could be going out for a walk or doing qigong, tai chi or gentle yoga – any practice that involves both movement and mindful breathing. But if the physical charge is too high, cardio activity can be a better choice – jumping, running on the spot, boxing or kicking an imaginary object (or person). What it does is it makes you use the energy generated by the survival response, release the excess charge from the body, and trigger the relaxation response.
If you’ve been going through a tough time while keeping it all to yourself, perhaps misunderstood or with no one to share your feelings with, no wonder that towards the evening or at night when there are fewer distractions, the emotions that were suppressed during the day come to the surface.
When feeling emotions like sadness, loneliness, disappointment, or helplessness, it is also common to experience constriction or some activation in the belly, chest, throat and even head area while not as much in the limbs. A natural discharge of such emotions can come in the form of a good cry that brings relief, a sigh, or a yawn.
Using your voice by singing, chanting, humming, growling, or even screaming can be quite a powerful way of moving through emotions. Rocking or dancing, or more dynamic movements like pushing or shaking may suit some people. Others, on the other hand, may benefit from processing these emotions on paper through journaling, drawing or painting. EFT tapping that can be easily done in bed has been proven to be quick and effective in decreasing the intensity of difficult emotions and sensations.
Some words of caution
Whatever activity or tool you choose to discharge excess energy and release emotions, pay attention to how you are feeling. Make sure you don’t overdo it, especially with the dynamic activities, and don’t miss a feeling and sensation of relief that comes naturally (your relaxation response). When you feel that your body is softening or getting heavier, or you notice that your breathing has slowed down or became deeper, that’s a good sign that you are ready to stop and go back to bed.
However, if on the contrary, you feel more agitated, it means you did too much. Gradually slow down or stop whatever you were doing. Give some time for the activation to settle by observing your breath and sensations, or try the grounding tools discussed below.
Triggers and trauma
For someone who has experienced trauma, relaxation itself can be triggering. In a state of calm, a trauma survivor is much more likely to experience flashbacks. This is because the body is loose and mental guards are down, or it could be that a traumatic event occurred when resting or before going to sleep.
Healing Well Counselling suggests that instead of trying to relax, we should focus on grounding, which is not the same as relaxation although very often confused with it. The goal of grounding is to bring awareness into the present moment which also helps to cultivate a felt sense of safety.
Grounding may include physical activities such as stretching or gently squeezing, massaging, rubbing or tapping your arms and legs. It could be noticing objects, shapes and colours in the room, feeling different textures and surfaces, holding weighted objects, or petting an animal. Engaging the mind by solving a puzzle or creating art is a great way to ground mentally.
Another piece of advice comes from a yoga therapist Jillian Pransky. When you are lying down, she suggests containing the outline of the body by placing props like blankets around the body to feel cradled, supported and safe. You can also try ‘placing eye bags over open palms to create a hand-holding effect’ or ‘resting the feet against something – a wall, a rolled-up blanket’ to experience a greater sense of stability and safety.
If you are unable to relax and fall asleep despite trying numerous relaxation tools and tricks, just know that this is common, and you are not doing anything wrong. Perhaps your body and your nervous system need a slightly different approach to trigger the relaxation response.
Please note that these self-help tools and techniques are for your general guidance and are not a substitute for professional advice. If you have a diagnosed mental health condition or disorder or have a history of trauma, please seek the support of a licensed mental health professional or trauma therapist.
I'm a trauma-informed somatic practitioner based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I help sensitive people find relief and healing from symptoms of chronic stress and trauma using body-oriented modalities such as Somatic Experiencing and trauma-informed yoga. You are welcome to book your first short session with me to see how I can help you. In this session you'll get to ask any questions you may have and also experience the somatic process.