Can’t fall asleep? What’s the deal? You used to sleep just fine, but suddenly and mysteriously, you’re not tired even though it’s late at night and you need to sleep. Many people experience changes in their sleep as they go through changes in their lives, and anxiety or pain can keep us awake when we need rest the most. Don’t worry: If you can’t fall asleep, there are plenty of solutions you can try to get back to bed and wake up rested.
1. Hide your clock
We’ve all been there — it’s 1:30 am, and you know you have to sleep before you get out of bed at six. You close your eyes, try to get back to sleep, but just find yourself worrying about how little sleep you’re going to get. What time is it now? Suddenly, the time is all you can think about. If you already know you’re up later than you want to be, knowing what exact time it is can raise the stakes on getting back to sleep. It’s a vicious cycle. Turn your clock around, and if you have to use your phone, cover the time with your hand.
2. Make sure your room is cool
The ideal temperature for sound sleep is between 60 and 67°F. If you’re feeling warm, set your thermostat a little lower and turn on your fan.
3. Eliminate light as much as possible
This one is obvious: humans evolved in environments that only had natural light. Our bodies want us to sleep when it’s dark, but these days we have lamps, electronics, headlights, and streetlights that interrupt our sleeping hours. we evolved in an environment where artificial light didn’t exist. Turn off any nearby lights, remove or unplug the electronics in your room that are casting light, and make sure your curtains are closed. In the future, think about investing in blackout curtains, too.
4. Wear an eye mask
Since our eyes can adjust to the dark, blocking your vision entirely with an eye mask can help remove distractions from your line of sight. If you don’t have an eye mask, draping a pillow over just your eyes can help, too.
5. Try a different pillow
You might be having trouble sleeping because you’re not using the right pillow for the way you sleep. A different pillow around the house might be more comfortable.
6. Drink chamomile tea
Studies have shown that chamomile acts as a sedative in the human brain, and drinking something warm can provide some much-needed comfort.
7. Listen to soothing music
Music has a direct effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you wind down for sleep. Studies have shown that music helps people with both short- and long-term sleep problems, so try turning on some soothing music at a low volume.
8. Or listen to a podcast you love
If you’re having racing thoughts, try listening to one of your favorite podcasts in your headphones. It might distract you from your worries long enough to help you drift off.
9. Or listen to the Sleep With Me podcast
Drew Ackerman’s “Sleep With Me” podcast tells nonsense stories in a low, monotone voice. Fans of the show swear by its ability to take you down a winding path into sleep.
10. Or listen to binaural beats
When sound at two slightly different frequencies are played, one in each ear, your brain hears a beat. These “binaural” beats have been shown in recent studies to help soothe anxiety.
11. Or turn on some white noise
If your pet, child, partner, or home is making noise that’s keeping you up, masking it with white noise can help. Variations on white noise include brown or pink noise that sounds more staticky or deeper — see which one works best for you.
12. Try deep breathing
Taking slow, deep, controlled breaths has long been prescribed as a way to calm down when you can’t fall asleep — and for good reason. Researchers at Stanford recently found that deep breathing acts on a cluster of neurons in the brainstem that are linked to relaxation.
13. Or try the 4-7-8 method
The 4-7-8 method is a more systemized version of deep breathing. To try this technique, breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and exhale evenly for a count of eight.
14. Or try alternate nostril breathing
Many insomniacs swear specifically by left-nostril breathing, in which you cover your right nostril and breathe only through the left. In alternate-nostril breathing, you switch between closing your nostrils, breathing in and out through each. This breathing method helps to bring awareness to your body so you can relax and fall asleep faster when you’re not tired.
15. Or blow bubbles
It might sound a little kooky, but if you have a bottle of bubbles around, it might be worth a try. Johns Hopkins professor and neurologist Rachel Salas, M.D., suggests it as a deep-breathing exercise that might also refocus your attention on something fun.
16. Visualize yourself asleep
While you’re practicing the deep breathing method of your choice, imagine yourself sleeping. Beyond being suggestive to your brain, it’s also a soothing mental image.
17. Or do a counting visualization
Sheep work, sure, but you can get creative and count something you like better than sheep: Drops of water falling on a windowsill, coins going into a piggy bank, or noodles in a colander, or, for instance.
18. Or visualize yourself doing something you’re good at in great detail.
In addition to its meditative qualities, this visualization will point your attention toward a sense of mastery and accomplishment (and away from insecurities or worries).
19. Or make meaningless lists in your head
What are your favorite episodes of your favorite reality show? How about your favorite sandwiches, in order? When you can’t fall asleep because you’re ruminating over negative thoughts, making positive but inconsequential lists can help you get in the right headspace for sleep.
20. Or try positive thinking
If you just can’t distract yourself from those negative thoughts, try reframing them in a positive light. “I can still function when I’m tired,” “I can look forward to a nap,” and “I’ll fall asleep eventually” are more productive and calming than “I’ll never get to sleep.”
21. Do progressive relaxation
In progressive relaxation, you tense and relax your muscles in order from the top of your body to the bottom. In addition to helping your muscles to mimic the kind of relaxation they should feel when you’re falling asleep, over time progressive relaxation may help you cultivate more awareness of your body and how it’s feeling when you’re trying to relax.
22. Or try self-acupressure
The theory behind acupressure is that applying pressure to certain points on your body can stimulate responses like relaxation or sleep. You can perform it on yourself by pressing your thumb on the inside of your wrist about an inch below your hand, on the back of your neck just under your skull, or right between your eyebrows.
23. Or ask your partner to give you a massage
If you can’t fall asleep because of tense muscles, ask your partner to give you a massage (so long as they can fall back to sleep, too!). In addition to helping to relax your muscles, human touch has comforting effects on the brain. If you can’t wake anyone up to help you, you can self-massage with tennis balls or a cane massager.
In recent years, many studies have found that meditation has positive effects both on the brain and on the body. If you’re awake late at night, now may be as good a time as any to learn how to meditate.
25. Or try centering prayer or a mantra
Centering prayer and mantra meditation both aim to bring your attention and focus to a certain word or phrase. Choose one that has positive personal meaning, and when you find your attention drifting away, bring it back to the word or phrase. In addition to helping you focus on something positive, over time you may find that your mantra helps you to calm down just by thinking of it.
26. Do some cognitive distancing
Often, when thoughts keep us awake, looking at them from a big-picture perspective can help. That’s called cognitive distancing: backing away from the details of your anxieties and looking at them in the context of your past, present, and future. Try telling yourself things like, “I’ve gotten through stressful things before and I’ll get through them again,” or “This will be resolved eventually.”
27. Accept what you can’t change right now
If you’re worried about a big problem in your life, try to remind yourself that there’s probably not much you can do about it at 2 o’clock in the morning. You can always take care of it in the daylight.
28. Write out your anxieties to get it out of your system
Sometimes all we need is to talk out the things that stress us out. When everyone else is asleep, write out the things that are troubling you and set them aside — you might find you can fall asleep faster when you’re not tired if you’ve just had the chance to express yourself.
29. Write out a to-do list for tomorrow
If the day ahead is troubling you, try writing a to-do list to break you day down into small, concrete steps. As a bonus, it’ll be so satisfying to tick them off the list tomorrow!
30. Roll your eyes
If you have kids, you probably remember seeing their eyes roll back when they fall asleep as babies. Yours do too, and some light sleepers find that rolling their eyes a few times can help to nudge their brain into sleep mode.
31. Pretend you’re not trying to fall asleep
Some people find that the easiest way to fall asleep is to tell themselves they’re not trying to fall asleep, but to do something relaxing anyway. Try lying down on the couch and reading a book, for example — you may be asleep sooner than if you try to sleep.
32. Or actually try not to sleep
This can be a roll of the dice, but many light sleepers say that trying not to sleep is less stressful than trying to sleep. Your body needs sleep, so if you try to fight sleep, eventually your body will win out.
33. Read something very boring
Any current or former student knows what it’s like to be dedicated to reading that textbook, but just not being able to keep their eyes open to get through it. Same idea: Find the densest book that you have any kind of interest in, and try to read as far as you can.
34. Get out of bed until you’re tired
If you’re trying to fall asleep when you’re not tired, you might find yourself thinking, “At this point I should just get out of bed.” You might be right! Getting out of bed and doing something until you’re tired can help you to feel less hopeless about falling asleep, and eventually you may find yourself dozing off.
35. Try aromatherapy
The scent of certain essential oils, like lavender, may activate your limbic system and activate your hypothalamus, both of which play a role in promoting positive emotions. Scent your pillow with a little bit of essential oil, use an essential oil diffuser, or put a few drops into your humidifier.
36. Take a hot shower and return to your cold room
Raising your body temperature in the shower and quickly lowering it by lying down in a cool bedroom could help to stimulate the physiological changes you go through when your body prepares for sleep.
37. Do something by candlelight
The dim red glow of firelight is more conducive to sleep than your lightbulbs. Try reading that boring book by candlelight — you may find you’re ready to sleep in no time.
38. Get yourself ready for the next day
As long as you’re up, you could always knock out some of your morning (or afternoon or evening) tasks. That way, you know the day ahead will be a little more manageable — and you might be able to hit the snooze button a few more times than usual.
39. Accomplish something
Promoting a sense of mastery helps to increase confidence, which in turn can help you to feel less anxious. If you’re out of bed, you can do something you do well, knock out a task you normally don’t have time for, or try some creative expression.
40. Do a task you enjoy less than sleeping
Diane Stein, M.D., suggests doing a chore you hate when you can’t sleep. Breaking out a toothbrush and cleaning your grout might just get you over the hump and into sleep.
41. Do some coloring
Coloring books have taken off in the past few years, and for good reason. It’s a tedious, relaxing, and some say meditative task that helps promote creativity and focus. If you can’t sleep and don’t want to read, try breaking out your colored pencils instead.
42. Dip your face in cold water
It might sound weird, but some say that a dip in cold water can help with the kind of panic attacks that keep you up at night. Dipping your face in ice cold (but not freezing) water for thirty seconds is said to trigger the “mammalian dive reflex,” which in turn causes the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and calm you down. If you’re feeling really anxious, this might be worth a try.
43. Avoid large, late meals
It takes a while for your digestive system to process food, so if you eat your meals late at night, your body will still be working when you’re trying to wind down. Eat big meals earlier in the evening, and if you’re still hungry, have a small (and caffeine-free) snack closer to bedtime.
44. Exercise in the morning
Getting plenty of exercise is a great way to promote better sleep — just make sure to do it early in the day. Exercise increases adrenaline levels, which will make it harder to sleep.
45. Use amber light in the evening instead of blue light
Blue light sends a signal to your brain that it’s still daytime, meaning you should still be awake. Most cell phones, tablets, and computers emit blue light, but thankfully there’s a way to fix that. Most newer cell phones and tablets have a nighttime option in their display settings, and on computers you can install a program like f.lux that automatically displays amber light later in the day.
46. Stop using electronics and screens one hour before bed
Aside from emitting blue light, most of what we do with electronics is stimulating. Put your screens aside for more relaxing tasks at the very end of the day.
47. Create an inviting sleep environment
If you hate the way your bedroom looks and feels, chances are you won’t feel like being in bed. Refreshing your bedroom decor and removing anything from the bedroom that will distract you from sleep can help you to love spending time in bed.
48. Only use the bedroom to sleep
If you have a habit of doing work or chores in your bedroom, you might be signalling to your brain that bedtime is work time. Find another space to get your work done and use your room to relax.
49. Set aside “worry time” during the day and time to relax right before bed
If you’re a chronic worrier, scheduling 10-20 minutes of “worry time” during the daytime can help you to get your worrying out of the way. You can work out what you’re feeling and what you need to do, and create a plan that you can start working on right away, while the rest of the world is awake. Then, schedule an hour to relax at night so that you can ease yourself into sleep.
50. Create a sleep routine
Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day helps your brain get into the groove of sleeping soundly. Hold yourself to a nighttime schedule and the same wake time every day, even on the weekends, and you may see your sleep improve.
51. Talk to a doctor
When you’ve done everything you can to promote better sleep and you just can’t fall asleep, it’s time to talk to a doctor. Your physician may be able to test you for any physical problems that could be keeping you awake and help create a game plan for dealing with anxieties.
What to do next:
- How journaling can help calm a racing mind
- Read about how melatonin helps to regulate sleep
- Muse2 device
- About the Somn sleep assessment
Explore Your Sleep