Have you ever experienced the feeling of being "tired but wired?" It describes a specific state of insomnia where you feel completely exhausted but simultaneously so restless that you can’t fall asleep or keep waking up. 


If you remember having such troubled nights only on rare occasions - such as after a heated discussion with your partner or when you had to give a presentation at work that could make or break your career - consider yourself lucky. The fast pace of modern life generates increasingly more "tired but wired" occasions, along with a myriad of other sleep disorders. 


For millions worldwide, sleep issues are turning from an acute state into a chronic disorder in epidemic proportions. A study of over 10,000 US citizens showed that 12% had problems falling asleep, 23% couldn’t maintain sleep properly, and 23% kept waking up too early [1].


We live in a sleep-deprived culture where adults sleep less than seven hours each night. The things that keep us awake continue to grow in number and variety. Whether day or night, we are constantly hyper-stimulated from hectic schedules to technology, and everything in between.


However, having brain fog the next day as a side effect is the least of our worries. Continuous stimulation of our nervous system, and long-term sleep disturbances, can lead to the development of serious illnesses [2], such as:

 

  • Obesity 
  • Myocardial infarction 
  • Coronary artery disease 
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes 

As scary as all this sounds, there’s a surprisingly simple way to prevent the long-term health hazards and short-term negative aspects of poor sleep. But before we get into that, we’ll explain what happens behind the 'sleep-disturbed lifestyle’ phenomenon. 


Let's quickly visit the center where it all starts – our autonomic nervous system (ANS).
 

 Also Read: Autonomic Nervous System: Secrets of Stress and Sleep Control

 

Watch out for the saber-toothed tiger

Sleep is regulated within our ANS, which mainly works through its two distinctive parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), activated when we're excited and stressed, and the parasympathetic nervous system (SNS), which takes over in restful states.

The problem is that the SNS developed over eons to keep us safe and to provide the necessary alert when a bear or saber-toothed tiger attacked us. While, today, we don't have to fight bears and tigers anymore, our nervous system doesn't know that. To anything it detects as a threat or alert, our ANS responds by initiating our caveman mechanism, as if the tiger is coming.

 

  • A traffic jam. 
  • A short project deadline. 
  • HIIT training. 
  • Even buzzing and dinging phone notifications.

The only way our body knows how to deal with stressful situations, whether big or small, is to turn on the SNS. At the same time, we don't get as many PNS activation periods (because who has the time to relax, right?).


As a result, we constantly push our SNS into overdrive, which messes up our sleep [3].
 

 

Don't panic. Just breathe.

It may be discouraging to know that we can’t do anything about our outdated 'paleo mechanisms.' We can’t eliminate everything from our environment that our body labels as a threat, either.


But we can learn how to impact our ANS, finally get a good night's sleep, and beat insomnia.


The secret lies in a combination of the following:

 

  •  'Sleep hygiene' habits, such as setting up a sleep schedule (and sticking to it), no screen time at least one hour before bed, removing all electronics from the bedroom, avoiding caffeine and nicotine from afternoon hours onwards, and no food or exercise at least two hours before bed.

  • Slow-breathing techniques incorporated into your bedtime routine. Why breathing? Because through breathing, we can directly activate the dormant PNS and shut down the SNS that’s in hyperdrive.

Over the last years, several breathing techniques gained popularity in trying to calm the aroused mind and switching it to sleep mode.
  • Diaphragmatic Breathing - also known as belly breathing and abdominal breathing, where you breathe slowly while holding one hand on the belly and pay attention to its movements 

  • 4-7-8 Breathing – a technique based on a specific inhale-exhale rhythm: inhale by counting to 4, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale while counting to 8

 

 

Your breath and sleep in resonance

Resonance breathing is the most effective breathing exercise that can significantly improve sleep quality and ensure you fall asleep faster. It hacks our nervous system to activate the PNS, reducing stress and improving cardiac health, focus, productivity, and cognition.


What's really happening during resonance breathing is the synchronization of your heart, brain, and lungs. By deepening your breathing and slowing it down to the right pace, your PNS starts to swing together with your breathing. This gives your heart and brain a calmness boost with every exhalation and, in the long run, improves the balance in your nervous system. 


Resonance breathing has proved to bring many health benefits, and improving the quality of sleep tops that list. Practitioners of resonance breathing report falling asleep more easily [4] and staying in the super-restful state of 'deep sleep' longer [5]. 


A study of 50 participants also found that resonance breathing affects the total sleep duration, prolonging it by an average of 29 minutes [6]. Other research showed how it enhanced overall sleep quality (PSQI index) [4, 5, 7] and how practicing resonance breathing before bedtime improved HRV [8].

 

Also Read: Rethinking Sleep Trackers: Uncovering the Hidden Drawbacks  

 

Sleep (way better) with Oxa

Resonance breathing is a highly-efficient technique for beating insomnia, but knowing when the body reaches the desired state of resonance is difficult to monitor.


Oxa has made these insights possible. 


This wearable captures your body's vital signs (like breathing rate, heart rate, and HRV) in real time and then provides immersive audio feedback that teaches resonance breathing. 


Simply close your eyes, follow the breathing pace, and listen to the wonderful sounds telling you how your body is falling into resonance. Many users fall asleep even before the exercise is finished. 


Activate your PNS on demand and learn how to sleep better with Oxa.

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[1] Walsh, James K., et al. "Nighttime insomnia symptoms and perceived health in the America Insomnia Survey (AIS)." Sleep 34.8 (2011): 997-1011.

[2] Grandner, Michael A., et al. "Sleep disturbance is associated with cardiovascular and metabolic disorders." Journal of sleep research 21.4 (2012): 427-433. 

[3] Bonnet, Michael H., and Donna L. Arand. "Hyperarousal and insomnia: state of the science." Sleep medicine reviews 14.1 (2010): 9-15.

[4] Tsai, H. J., et al. "Efficacy of paced breathing for insomnia: enhances vagal activity and improves sleep quality." Psychophysiology 52.3 (2015): 388-396.

[5] Li, QinLong, et al. "Presleep Heart-Rate Variability Biofeedback Improves Mood and Sleep Quality in Chinese Winter Olympic Bobsleigh Athletes." International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 17.10 (2022): 1516-1526.

[6] Mercadel, Joshua. Effect of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback on Sleep. Diss. University of South Carolina, 2019.

[7] Lin, I-Mei, et al. "Heart rate variability biofeedback increased autonomic activation and improved symptoms of depression and insomnia among patients with major depression disorder." Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience 17.2 (2019): 222.

[8] Sakakibara, Masahito, et al. "Heart rate variability biofeedback improves cardiorespiratory resting function during sleep." Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback 38 (2013): 265-271.

Ready to begin?

Get the Oxa Sensor and your choice of garment - lounge-wear shirt, bra, or adjustable chest strap. Your purchase includes access to the Oxa app which gives personalized data summaries and insights, as well as access to breathing exercises to teach you how to harness the power of your own breath.