Help! I can’t get to sleep.

In recent years there has been a lot of good research and advice on sleep making its way into more mainstream (social)media. Based on this and a combination of my own experience and expertise, I have started documenting my thoughts on sleep and some strategies that have worked for me, my family, and my clients.

See what works for you and make it your own.

The role of the nervous system in getting to sleep

First, it helps to understand the role of the nervous system. Broadly speaking, our nervous system has two states of being, “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”. These are known as the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems respectively. As we experience stress and situations throughout our day that require high energy and concentration (think work) we need to be able to tap into the sympathetic – fight or flight – system. This is the playground of adrenaline. Not only does it keep us safe, it keeps us alert and ready for anything, so it is important then to be able to get out of this state and into rest and digest, especially in order to go to sleep. And yes, while this happens naturally, we can get stuck.

Have you ever laid in bed at night and felt too amped up to sleep?

Or maybe your mind is on red alert and is rehashing the days events while also trying to predict the events of tomorrow.

 These are signs of being stuck in sympathetic drive. In my experience, this is where people have trouble with sleep, when our daily life bleeds into what should be our cocoon of solitude and safety, our bed.

"The Protocol"

Here’s the protocol I’ve been using and recommending based on the theory above and the exercises below:

  • 3x Complete Exhales
  • 3x Physiological Sighs
  • 3 minutes of :4-to-6 Breathing”
  • Backwards counting to 80

Exercises to do in bed to get to sleep

Exercise 1: Diaphragm Nasal Breathing

I’m not here to tell you that you’re breathing wrong. Instead I want to guide you towards an optimal way of breathing that we frequently stray from when we’re stressed. Try this exercise and see what difference you feel.

Sit with your bum on a seat, your feet flat on the floor, and relax your back and shoulders. Close your mouth and place your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Now put your hands around your lower ribs and let your body relax. This is not the time for sitting up straight.

Quietly breathe in through your nose – someone should be able to sit next to you and not hear you breathe. As you slowly inhale, feel your ribs expand into your hands. Notice which directions you feel the most. Is there any movement at all?

What we are aiming for here is expansion of the belly and rib cage at the front, the back and at the sides. A common mistake is to just breathe into the belly, this is not what we’re after. Draw your attention again to your hands around your ribs and, this time as you gently breathe in, try to fill your hands at the front, out into the sides, and at the back. Another common mistake is trying to do this forcefully. Just relax and breathe gently.

Notice what you feel? Anything different?

I’ll make a video of this one day but in the meantime here are some examples that capture the concept in one way or another. There a many ways to skin a cat, this is just my version. In the meantime, here’s some other videos that you can follow:

Exercise 2: The Physiological Sigh

This is a Huberman special and is by far the most valuable exercise I’ve come across. Period. As you develop the ability to get in and out of a parasympathetic state, this exercise will become more and more powerful. And more effective.

To perform a Physiological Sigh, first inhale through your nose, then take another sniff of air on top of that. Then let yourself relax and sigh the air out through your mouth.

Prescription: Once you get in to bed and get comfortable, perform 3 of these sighs in a row. Then settle in as your body winds down and takes you towards sleep.


Remember this exercise. It’s quick and easy and you can literally do it anywhere anytime. Take note of how you feel afterwards. You will immediately feel more calm and relaxed. Any time you’re in a stressful situation you can use this. Boss yelling at you? Cut off in traffic? This is your answer.

Exercise 3: Parasympathetic Breathing (4-to-6 breathing)

This is based off the training of Heart Rate Variability which is a measurement is a measurement that describes the interaction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When you breathe in, the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system is active while when you breathe out the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system is active. So it stands to reason that we can manipulate our state of being by changing how we breathe.

With this exercise, we’re aiming for a four second inhale followed by a six second exhale. This forces us into spending more time in rest and digest than in fight or flight. The magic is, you don’t have to be exact with the timing. Just count in for 4 and out for 6 and as long as it’s reasonably close then you’re fine.

Prescription: Start with 4-5 breaths following this ratio – 4 seconds in, 6 seconds out. Work your way up to 20 breaths.

Sometimes this can feel a bit uncomfortable because it’s forcing us into a nervous system state either we’re not intimately familiar with or we’re not ready to go into. That’s ok! If you feel you need stop and breath normally, do that. There’s no benefit to forcing anything. Take your time and return to the breathing when you’re ready.

Exercise 4 - Backwards Counting

As I recall, I took this from a YouTube video on how the special forces get to sleep and it’s kind of like counting sheep. The idea is to override your thoughts, particularly the intrusive ones, with numbers. Start with 99 and count your way back. What I’ve found effective is drawing out the time between each number as I count backwards. If you forget what number you’re up to don’t stress, remember this isn’t a test. Just start again from 99 or pick a number. It really doesn’t matter.

Prescription: Start at 99 and slowly count backwards, increasing the time between each number.

If you get to 0 then you’ve probably been lying there for quite some time so it’s time to change context. Get up, get a small drink, sit on the couch for a few minutes. Just do something other than trying to force your way to sleep, then come back and try again. Be kind and patient to yourself.

Exercise 5 - The Complete Exhale

This exercise feeds into the parasympathetic breathing. Often when we are stressed and in fight or flight we breathe through our upper chest and neck. When this gets really bad we can find ourselves holding our breath or even taking short, sharp sips of air. As a result our diaphragm, which is our main breathing muscle, becomes short and tight and less familiar with being in a longer, stretched state. So in some ways, this is a diaphragm stretch.

While this is further down the list, I actually like to start with this because it can be a bit uncomfortable if you’re not used to it.

Lying on your back, place your hands on your tummy. Take a normal breath in. Now blow out all your air through your mouth. Can you feel your tummy muscles turning on? No? Breathe more air out. Can you still speak? Yes? Breathe more air out. Really, force all the air out. This is a complete exhale.

Now pause.

This is the hard part. If you’re not familiar with being in this fully exhaled state the body can feel panicky, like it needs to breathe in air NOW. Resist this. Stay in control. Realistically, your body can survive for quite some time without oxygen (many minutes) but often it doesn’t realise this because it’s so used to having an abundance of air flowing through your nose, mouth, and lungs.

So hold this fully exhaled position for a couple of seconds. Now instead of just taking a breath in, imagine the air leakingback into your lungs. This is not an active breath in. We want the air to slowly, slowly, slowly leak back into your lungs. Control this. It should take you at least 5 seconds, if not more.

Prescription: Start with doing this once then returning to normal breathing. Work your way towards being able to do three in a row. Any more and you can find yourself getting a bit light headed!

Sleep Accessories

Eye Mask

In March this year a study showed a statistically significant increases in memory performance and higher alertness the next day (Greco et al., 2023). Basically, get smarter for free.

While you’re asleep your body is awake, you’re just not aware of it. So if you have too much ambient light in your room, your body still registers it as coming through your eyelids. I guess this keeps it alert while you sleep. Sleeping with a mask has been the single greatest improvement I’ve made to my sleep. The difference is so great that when I take my mask off on waking, my supposedly dark room with blockout curtains makes me squint because it’s so bright. Give it a go.


Here’s my recommendation as far as masks go. I love it because it’s soft so I can sleep on my side and still be comfortable. My partner doesn’t like it because it’s a bit too close to her eyelashes.

Journal Article: Wearing an eye mask during overnight sleep improves episodic learning and alertness.

Sleep Tracking


I use an Apple Watch with the app Autosleep. It’s a paid app but I think it’s worth it. It gives a good breakdown across each nights sleep and across the week.

Pre-sleep routine for better sleep

I’m going to say the usual applies here. Many have written about this better than me but I will summarise.

  • Reduce blue light exposure – devices off at least an hour before bed (NO PHONE IN BED). Read a book for a bit instead.
  • Last meal no closer than 3 hours before your planned bed time
  • Reduce water intake in the hours leading up to bed. Hopefully you’ve been drinking enough throughout the day. Drinking water/tea/beer too close to bed time fills up the bladder leading to nighttime bathroom visits and sleep disruption.
  • Drop the temperature. In order to go to sleep, your body temperature needs to drop so pop the aircon on or turn on a fan
  • Decrease ambient light. If you’re using the mask this is still important because, at least for me, the mask can slip off so we want the room to be as dark as possible.
  • Stay away from alcohol before bed.

Further Reading