Can’t Sleep? 4 Tips that Work When You Have Trouble Sleeping

Plus, how to tell if these sleep problems are temporary or a product of on-going insomnia.

A couple lies in bed. The man is awake, staring at the ceiling, because he can't sleep. Use these tips when you're having trouble sleeping.
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You probably know this scenario well: You’re lying wide awake in bed, thinking about how you’re not sleeping. With each minute that ticks by, you become more stressed out and anxious — making it even more difficult to fall sleep.

To combat all that anxiety, you need to activate your relaxation response and guide your mind away from your worrying thoughts. But when you’re stuck in the anxiety-sleeplessness cycle, relaxation can feel like the furthest thing from your mind. Luckily, simple strategies can help you get back to sleep in the moment — and with daily practice, could even prevent future sleepless nights.

Relaxation tips for sleepless nights or insomnia

On nights when you can’t fall asleep, start by getting out of bed. This might seem counterintuitive, but it’s important not to associate your bed with restlessness and unwanted thoughts, which can trigger anxiety — and the fight-or-flight response.

“If you’re having trouble falling asleep or if you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s important that you don’t just lie there,” says Carla Picolli, a certified sleep coach for adults and children. “It will be easier to fall and remain asleep if your brain and body have made a positive association with your bed.”

Once you’re out of your bed (and your bedroom), do something relaxing for 20 minutes. Reading a semi-boring book, drawing, journaling, or doing a gentle yoga flow are all activities that shouldn’t stimulate you too much. Then, head back to the sack and try to fall asleep again.

If you can’t sleep but feel tired enough to stay in bed, you can try these bedroom relaxation techniques:

  • box breathing to help regulate your nervous system and slip into relaxation  
  • progressive muscle relaxation to relieve physical stress  
  • sleep hypnosis audio tracks to help take your mind off anxious thoughts  
  • mindful meditations like sleep affirmations and visualizations, which are being explored as novel treatments for insomnia 
  •  When you’re just getting started, rotate among these tools. Once you find the relaxation technique that works well for you, make it your go-to strategy for nipping a sleepless night in the bud.

Pre-bedtime tips for insomnia

Practicing relaxation techniques can help you get to sleep when you’re struggling to nod off. But if you want to avoid sleepless nights altogether, you need to make conscious decisions during the day, Picolli says.

From caffeine intake to exercise, your daytime lifestyle habits can either help or hurt your chances of getting a great night’s sleep, even if they’re happening a full eight hours before bedtime. If you often lie awake at night, try these five tips to set yourself up for solid sleep.

1. Tackle common sleep disruptors
If you're not tired enough at your usual bedtime, something in your day could have affected your body’s production of melatonin, the “sleep hormone” key to your sleep-wake cycle, or adenosine, a neurotransmitter that increases your sleepiness levels.

An excess of blue light can affect your melatonin production, while caffeine can prevent adenosine from building up in your brain. Want to get your internal clock back in harmony? Ditching your electronic devices an hour before bed and avoiding caffeine after 1 p.m. are two good places to start.

2. Create the right bedroom environment
Bedroom disturbances like too much brightness, the wrong temperature, and external noise can delay your sleep schedule and cause nighttime awakenings. If you’ve been crashing into your bed without a second thought, take some time to check your bedroom vibes. For the best-quality sleep, you’ll want your bedroom to stay quiet, dark, and cool throughout the night.

By setting up a sleep-inducing bedroom environment, you can stay comfortable and at ease so that your mind focuses on winding down instead of distractions. If you do find your mind tumbling down tension road, a focus on a calming aspect of your environment to move back toward relaxation.

3. Write away the anxious thoughts
To calm a calm a racing mind before bedtime, try writing it out. By organizing your thoughts and feelings on paper, you can prevent them from taking up room inside your head. If you're not sure where to start, try these strategies:

  • Keep a sleep diary Doing so can help you deal with overwhelming emotions and identify what could be spoiling your slumber. 
  • Write a to-do list. Going over the next day’s responsibilities can keep your head buzzing for hours, but research confirms that taking just five minutes to jot out a to-do list before bed can help you fall asleep more quickly. (Hint: the longer and more detailed your list, the better.) 

But when you’re ready to put your thoughts to paper, do so literally — not with your phone’s note-taking app, Picolli says. By sticking with pen and paper, you can avoid blue light before bedtime, which can interfere with your melatonin production. Studies have also shown that the brain is more connected to short-hand writing than typing, meaning that you’ll better remember what you physically write, and can more mindfully offload it.

4. Take a walk
If your worries keep you awake at night, exercise could be just the thing to set yourself up for better sleep. Research shows that people with insomnia slept better and felt less pre-sleep anxiety after moderate-intensity exercise. But try not to exercise too Just try not to exercise too soon before bed, as it can have the opposite effect and impact your ability to doze off.

How to tell if your sleeplessness could be insomnia

If you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing a few bad nights or full-blown insomnia, take a quick inventory of your sleep health. (If you’ve started keeping a sleep diary, now is the time to review everything you’ve logged there.) How often are you tossing and turning? How long does it usually take you to fall asleep? Could lifestyle habits like caffeine consumption be contributing to your sleep issues?

Most of the time, insomnia is due to our lifestyle, habits, stress, and anxiety. But there’s no need to be harsh on yourself when trying to make changes; gentleness and consistency are key.

The bottom line: Good sleep comes with a lifestyle of moderation

Even in sleep, you can have too much of a good thing — in fact, wanting good sleep so badly you don’t sleep is not uncommon. Associating your bed with restlessness and unwanted thoughts is only going to get you into fight-or-flight mode (and kick up) your cortisol levels.

“Laying there, willing yourself to sleep, looking at the clock and thinking ‘if I got to sleep right this minute, I’d still get five hours’ — all of this is going to make sleep come even harder,” Picolli explains.

Focusing on good sleep hygiene can go a long way in helping your body clock work in harmony.

If after four weeks of following the above tips and establishing healthy sleep habits you still have difficulty sleeping at night, Picolli recommends seeing your doctor for tests to identify if you have an underlying medical condition. “In some cases, insomnia can have a medical origin such as a hormone imbalance or depression,” she adds.