What to Do When You Can’t Sleep

For some, quality sleep is hard to come by. Between 25% to 47% of adults get less than seven hours of sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And you need at least seven for your best health.

Sometimes it’s hard to fall asleep for a couple of days due to a single, stressful event. This is called short-term insomnia, or acute insomnia, and it usually disappears when the period of stress is over. Long-term insomnia, or chronic insomnia, happens when you can’t regularly fall asleep and stay asleep for more than a month.

If you’re among the many who have trouble falling and staying asleep on a long-term basis, you may need to tweak your daily habits to get those z’s. In rare cases where a person suffers from sleep apnea, a special sleep doctor may be needed. Before you decide a doctor is the best route, there are a number of strategies to help yourself turn in for the night.

[READ: Foods for Better Sleep.]

Why Can’t You Sleep?

External Factors:

— Noise

— Light

— Comfort

Internal Factors:

— Anxiety

— Physical ailments

At night, our bedroom needs to become a sanctuary for sleep. Light, especially blue light from cell phones or laptops, can keep us awake. Light signals to our brain that it’s time to wake up and the absence of light tells us it’s time to sleep. If we are exposed to light all the time, our brains stop knowing when it’s time to turn off for the day, and our sleep becomes disrupted.

Similarly, noise can also cause sleep disturbances, especially if you can hear any type of traffic. Noises cause us to stress out, which makes us sleep poorly. In the short term, you’re likely to be annoyed and tired the next day. In the long term, you may increase your chance of cardiovascular disease.

If you are someone who watches the news before bed or reads news on their phone, the content can make you anxious and make it difficult to fall asleep. “Most of the time news is bad, and that’s another stress,” says Dr. Alcibiades J. Rodriguez, medical director of NYU Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center — Sleep Center in New York City. “Don’t read the news two to three hours before bed. It’s not going to help with stress.”

For those who live in small homes or studio apartments, it’s best to stay away from your bed while you work or do other things, otherwise you may start to associate your bed with being awake. “It’s the mattress and the bed mostly that need to be left alone,” says Rodriguez. Your bed is only for sleeping.

Your actual bed and pillows need to be comfortable and relaxing to you, as well. Medical studies conclude that a medium-firm mattress is often the best bet for those looking for better sleep quality. Furthermore, if you’re sweaty at night, you may also want to try a cooling mattress or cooling pillow.

Finally, if you’re uncomfortable in your bed, say if you’re too sweaty or if you have aches and pains, this can cause additional restlessness and poor sleep. If you have or have had COVID-19, you may have experienced respiratory stress, making it difficult to stay asleep. Not getting enough sleep could mean that your pain reoccurs because your body hasn’t been able to heal properly.

[READ: Does Melatonin Work for Sleep?]

How to Relax When You Can’t Sleep

Regardless of what your sleep ailment may be, there are some techniques that can help calm you when it seems impossible to get a good night of rest. Before you try over-the-counter sleep medication, the sleep tips below may help at bedtime.

Rodriguez explains that one of the key things is not to remain awake and worried in bed, especially if one of these techniques isn’t working for you as part of your bedtime routine. Basically, if you’re trying to fall asleep faster, don’t. “Meditation, breathing exercises can be beneficial,” says Rodriguez. “But don’t do relaxation (techniques) for the first time at night. You need to practice. It may work for some people, but don’t force it if it doesn’t.”

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT-I)

According to the Mayo Clinic, if your thoughts or behaviors at night are keeping you awake, it may be helpful to practice better sleep habits, sometimes with the help of a therapist.

CBT-I is a structured program with a sleep therapist that can help you identify racing thoughts and negative behaviors that make it hard to fall asleep. “Get out of bed for 10 to 15 minutes if you can’t sleep,” says Rodriguez. “Go to a chair and read something boring.” When you start to feel drowsy, then you can go back to bed.


Some studies suggest mindfulness meditation can help reduce worrying and anxiety. The easiest way to practice mindfulness is to pay attention to your thoughts without labeling them as “good” or “bad,” while also remaining as much as you can within the present moment. This also means letting go of thoughts about what happened or what could happen.

4-7-8 Breathing

If practicing mindfulness meditation doesn’t work for you, you can try deep breathing techniques, such as 4-7-8 breathing, which have been shown to reduce stress. To begin 4-7-8 breathing, take a deep breath for four seconds. Hold your breath for seven seconds, then slowly release your breath and exhale while counting from one to eight. Repeat these steps several times and then pause and notice if you feel more relaxed.


If you tend to plan a lot in bed, it may help to journal or record your thoughts before going to sleep. It may help to make a to-do list or write down your thoughts in a different room before going to your bedroom to sleep, says Dr. Alon Y. Avidan, a professor of neurology at the University of California Los Angeles and director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center. If you don’t get out of bed to record your thoughts, “the bed then becomes a place for planning and thinking,” says Avidan. “It’s a place for hypervigilance.”

[SEE: Sleep Apnea: 11 Things That Make It Worse.]

How to Improve Sleep Hygiene

How to Get Your Best Sleep:

— Go to bed on time

— Don’t take daytime naps

— Avoid caffeine late in the day

— Remove all lights from your bedroom and avoid light exposure

One of the best things you can do is maintain a regular bedtime. Since most adults need about seven to eight hours of sleep, give yourself enough time before you need to be up the next day to hit that target. Similarly, if you nap too much during the day, that can cause a lack of sleepiness at night. Avidan recommends trying to nap for only 15 minutes, if you need to nap. “You are making it harder to restore your drive for sleep because you napped for an hour,” says Avidan.

If you drink caffeine regularly, pay attention to when and how much you drink. Caffeine has been shown to cause sleep disturbances, especially if you drink too much a few hours before sleep.

Those who tend to go to sleep with their cell phones next to them should think twice: Blue light from cell phones (or television or other electronics) can disrupt your sleep. Specifically, they can signal to your brain to suppress melatonin, or the hormone our body secretes to help us sleep.

Even though you can try a number of strategies to get to sleep at night, it’s still important that you review your daily routine and assess whether you need to make improvements. “Whatever you do during the day, it’s going to affect your sleep,” says Rodriguez. “Living a healthy life will give you the best sleep.”

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What to Do When You Can’t Sleep originally appeared on usnews.com

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