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Sleep Strategies: sub-module 3 of 3 of sleep

While healthy sleep habits are the cornerstone of good sleep, sometimes you need a quick fix. This module will focus on in-the-moment strategies to help you drift off when you’re staring at your ceiling in the middle of the night.


  • Use progressive muscle relaxation to help you relax.Tense and release your muscles to prepare your body for sleep.
  • Use breathing techniques to feel calm.Practice belly breathing to soothe your mind and body.
  • Do the ‘cognitive shuffle’ to keep your mind off stressful things. Visualizing objects using this technique will occupy your mind and stop you from thinking about the stressful things that keep you up.
  • If you can’t fall asleep, do something relaxing and try again later.Don’t force sleep. The stress of not sleeping can keep you awake. If you’re still awake after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing.

How to Help Yourself Fall Asleep

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

If you’re lying in bed, struggling to fall asleep, your body may become very tense. Progressive muscle relaxation can help you to sleep by relieving this tension. Plus, it keeps your mind busy, distracting you from any stressful thoughts.

To try out this technique, follow these steps:

  1. Start at one end of your body (i.e. your head or your feet).
  2. Focus on a body part, and squeeze those muscles tightly for a few seconds.
  3. Release.
  4. Move onto the next muscle group, until you have relaxed your entire body.

This video will guide you through a 7-minute progressive muscle relaxation exercise.

The Belly Breathing Technique

If you’re feeling anxious as you try to sleep, breathing can help. Just the act of focusing on your breath can help you to relax your mind, and deep breathing can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down.

While there are a number of breathing techniques to relax you, one strategy is called belly breathing. To do belly breathing:

  1. Inhale to a count of 4
  2. Hold for a count of 4
  3. Exhale for a count of 4
  4. Pause for a count of 4

This video will guide you through a few minutes of belly breathing.

Distract Yourself with the Cognitive Shuffle

Invented by cognitive scientist Dr. Luc Beaudoin, this strategy keeps your mind too busy to think about the things that might stress you out, but not so busy that you’re kept wide awake. In fact, this low level of mental activity can lull you into sleep.

To do the cognitive shuffle:

  1. Pick a word. This word should be emotionally neutral and should not repeat any letters -- for example, “scarf.”
  2. Start with the first letter of the word and visualize as many objects as you can that start with that letter. So if you’re starting with S, think of a stapler, a shih tzu dog, a Sasquatch...
  3. When you run out of items, move onto the next letter.
If you’d like to be guided through the cognitive shuffle, check out the My Sleep Button - open in a new window app. This app will list things for you to visualize as you fall asleep.

Get Out of Bed for a While

While it’s tempting to stare at the clock and calculate how many hours are left until your alarm goes off, this stress can make you even less likely to fall asleep. So if you’re still awake after lying in bed for 20 minutes, get up.

Go into another room, keep the lights low, and do something to relax yourself. For example:

  • Read (just be sure to use a physical book rather than an ebook, as the light from electronics can wake you up)
  • Work on a puzzle (crossword, Sudoku, jigsaw)
  • Listen to a podcast
  • Listen to soothing music
  • Meditate

Avoid looking at the clock, and just enjoy what you’re doing. When you start to feel sleepy, go back to bed and try to fall asleep. If you’re still awake after 10 minutes, consider getting out of bed again.

Tip: If you often have trouble falling asleep, plan your relaxing activities in advance. Know which room you will go to, and have whatever you need (e.g. headphones, puzzle) waiting there so that you don’t have to hunt around for it.