Trouble sleeping after performing or training in the evening? Using psychological skills might help!

With the festive season in full swing, many circus artist are experiencing their busiest time of the year. Late night performances are common, and might result in disturbed sleep. Disturbed sleep does not only affect your physical recovery, but also increases chances of experiencing accidents. So what can you do about this?

There are several psychological skills that have been shown to improve sleep, one of my favorites is progressive muscle relaxation (McCloughan et al., 2016). Over the past five years I have taught progressive muscle relaxation to over 500 university students and elite athletes. Based on feedback approximately 90% finds it relaxing and useful.

Fleur in lyra
Picture by Olive Oates Photography

What is progressive muscle relaxation?

Progressive muscle relaxation uses conscious awareness of the difference between muscle tension and muscle relaxation to promote overall relaxation. For this reason, it is called a ‘muscle to mind’ relaxation technique, meaning that you are using your body to calm your body and mind. I think this technique is particularly useful for circus artists because we are often unaware how tense and tight our bodies are after performing/training. Awareness of this can help you reduce the tension in your body, calm your mind, and as a result you are likely to fall asleep more quickly.

How does progressive muscle relaxation work?

Essentially, during progressive muscle relaxation you tense muscles for approximately three seconds, and then you release them. You do this in a systematic manner, either from your head working your way down to your toes, or from your toes working your way up to your head. Avoid randomly tensing and releasing muscles, it doesn’t work as well. While you are doing your progressive muscle relaxation, you focus on how heavy and relaxed your muscles feel after you release the tension. Prior to starting progressive muscle relaxation I recommend everybody to find themselves a comfortable spot (for example: your bed), to close your eyes, and to take a couple of slow, deep, breaths in and out. After this, you start your progressive muscle relaxation. I use my own progressive muscle relaxation script with my students and clients, but there are several great scripts available on youtube and in apps. An effective video on youtube that I quite like is this one.

Psychological skills need to be trained

Notice how I have used the words ‘skills’ and ‘technique’ through-out this blog. Just like circus skills, psychological skills require a bit of training before you become an intermediate, advanced, or expert user. So don’t expect miracles the first time you use the skill ‘progressive muscle relaxation’ (or any psychological skill). Instead, give yourself time to develop the skill via training and practice. Once you’ve got the basic down, it will start to pay off. As an extra bonus, progressive muscle relaxation hasn’t just been shown to improve sleep, it is also helpful to reduce performance anxiety when you use it prior to going onstage (McCloughan et al., 2016).

Are there other techniques that can help me fall asleep?

Which psychological skills work for you depends a bit on your personality and personal preferences, and although it works for many people progressive muscle relaxation might not be the relaxation technique that comes most naturally to you. Usually you would figure this out in collaboration with a psychologist (sport psychologists for example are well-trained in this). Together with your psychologist you could explore other relaxation techniques such as mental imagery and deep breathing exercises, or implement sleep hygiene strategies.


McCloughan, L. J., Hanrahan, S. J., Anderson, R., & Halson, S. R. (2016). Psychological recovery: progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), anxiety, and sleep in dancers. Performance Enhancement & Health4(1-2), 12-17.