What To Do When You Can’t Sleep (Tips From 7 Experts)

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on October 03, 2020
Expert Content

Everyone struggles to fall asleep from time to time.

Getting enough restorative sleep is a key part of healthy lifestyle, but what are some things to bear in mind if you’re struggling and can’t sleep?

We asked a group of seven experts for their tips on what to do when you can’t sleep. Here’s what they said.

Editor's note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The content of our articles is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always best to speak with your doctor or a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet or exercise routine, or trying a new supplement.

Get Up At The Same Time Every Day

Martin Reed, Certified Clinical Sleep Health Educator and Founder of Insomnia Coach

• Avoid spending too much time in bed – The amount of time we allot for sleep should be similar to our average nightly sleep duration.

So, if you typically get about six hours of sleep each night, it’s best not to allot much more than around six-and-a-half hours for sleep. Many people who struggle with sleep allot too much time for sleep as a way of trying to get more sleep.

This sounds logical — after all, if you spend more time in bed there is more opportunity for sleep. However, if you are already struggling with sleep then spending more time in bed will simply lead to more time awake in bed rather than more time asleep.

This leads to more tossing and turning during the night, and more worry, stress, and anxiety related to being awake in bed.

Over time, this creates an association between the bed, worry, and wakefulness — rather than sleep, and relaxation. This makes sleep more difficult.

By allotting an appropriate amount of time for sleep that is similar to your typical sleep duration you will be minimizing the amount of time you spend awake in bed. This will strengthen the association between the bed and sleep, making sleep more likely to occur.

• Always get out of bed by the same time every day – Getting out of bed by the same time every day strengthen’s the sleep/wake cycle and ensures that adequate sleep pressure builds during the day.

Over time, this will make it easier to fall asleep at night and improve sleep quality.

• Reduce alcohol consumption in the evenings – Although alcohol can help us fall asleep, it disrupts sleep later in the night.

That’s because, as the body breaks down alcohol, it has a stimulant effect — so, although a few nightcaps might help you fall asleep faster, they may lead to nighttime awakenings and more time spent awake later in the night.

Limiting alcohol consumption to one or two glasses of wine or beer with dinner, three to four hours before bedtime will help minimize any sleep disruption.

• Exercise – Not only is exercise good for your overall health, it’s great for your sleep health, too! When it comes to the timing of exercise, exercising around six hours before you go to bed may be more beneficial for sleep due to the timing of the rise and fall of your body temperature — but all exercise is good exercise!

I would suggest trying to avoid rigorous exercise too close to bedtime this could delay sleep onset.

• Unwind – Create a daily one hour ‘buffer zone’ before bed to allow enough time to relax and unwind.

During this time, you shouldn’t work or do anything stressful. The daily buffer zone should be used only for pleasurable activities (such as reading, meditation, yoga, etc) in order to set the stage for sleep.

Taking steps to prepare for sleep each night can improve sleep quality and this can lead to more energy, more productivity, and a happier, healthier life.

Woman Asleep Night Routine

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Accept The Fact That You Can’t Sleep

Tasha Seiter, Therapist and Founder of Tasha Seiter Therapy

When you can’t fall asleep, it’s normal to worry about your insomnia.

This fear and anxiety about what will happen if you can’t sleep keeps you up. This becomes a vicious cycle.

Thinking things like, “I’m going to sleep through my alarm,” “I’m going to be tired all day tomorrow and blow my presentation,” or “I’m never going to get over this insomnia,” creates anxiety.

This anxiety activates our ‘fight or flight’ response, the ancient biological response to a perceived threat.

Of course, you can’t sleep when your body is responding as if you’re getting ready to fight off, or run from, a Saber-toothed tiger! It is hardly relaxing.

When you can’t sleep, the most important thing to do is to halt your rumination. To get to sleep, you need to accept that you can’t sleep.

Although not being able to sleep is unpleasant and can create tiredness the next day, we know that these effects are much less than what you tend to believe in those worse-case-scenario moments.

If you can’t sleep tonight, will it really ruin your entire life? Or even your entire next day?

Try practicing an acceptance exercise, saying to yourself, “Yes, I can’t sleep, but this will have minimal effects on my life. I will still be able to function tomorrow. This is unpleasant, but it is OK.”

You can then interrupt your rumination by focusing on your breath. Every time a thought about your insomnia comes into your head, you can say something to yourself like, “there’s the ‘my life is ruined’ story again” and keep focusing on your breath.

You will find you will be asleep in no time, because acceptance activates your soothing system, which counteracts your stress system.

Stay Away From Screens Before Bed

Chris Norris, Certified Sleep Science Coach and Founder of SleepStandards.com

• Get out of bed – If you’re unable to fall asleep after 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing, such as reading a book, drinking herbal tea, or a relaxing bath.

Tossing and turning will only add anxiety, and if it builds up, the body can start releasing adrenaline, waking you up fully.

• Let go of worries – Write them down on a piece of paper or notebook, or externalize them on a digital medium or even an artwork.

Doing this will help “transfer” it from your brain, onto something physical, and alleviate the mental stress. You can also set aside a specific time for worry.

Like scheduling your bedtime, schedule a period of time where you can do all your worrying. This will help train your brain to only worry at this time, not when it’s time to sleep.

• Steer clear of screens – The bedroom should only be a place for sleep, so when your body goes to the bed, your brain knows it’s time to rest.

Stay away from the television, or handheld devices as the blue light emitted from them sends signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up.

Keep the lights in your room dim or off, and make sure that your sleep area is comfortable.

Don’t Panic About Not Being Able To Sleep Every Now And Then

Celso Ed Teixeira, Founder of Illinois Sleep Counseling

First, if you’re suffering a sleepless night, don’t panic. An occasional bout of insomnia is completely normal, especially in these stressful times.

One or two nights of sleeplessness, also called acute insomnia, can be caused by hormones, life events, or even aching muscles from working out too close to bedtime.

If you go to bed and just can’t sleep, get out of bed and find something else to do for 30 minutes. If you feel sleepy after that, go back to bed and try again.

If you’re still awake, do the same thing until it works. In about 90 per cent of cases, your inner ship will right itself and you’ll be back to sleeping normally the next night.

If your sleeplessness continues for three or more nights each week, you may have chronic insomnia, and may benefit from working with a sleep therapist.

Chronic insomnia can go on for years and does pose real health hazards. The ‘gold standard’ for treating chronic insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I. It involves working with a trained therapist once a week, usually for six to eight sessions total.

The key is to make sure you find a therapist specifically trained in CBT-I, since even those with extensive CBT backgrounds don’t have the specialized knowledge to work on sleep issues.

Best Night Routine

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Try To Stay Present

Sharon Grossman, Psychologist and Success Coach

Part of the reason people have a hard time falling asleep is because their mind is racing with thoughts about what they should have done, could have done better, or what they should do tomorrow.

In other words, they aren’t present. In order to fall asleep, we need to be calm, not just in our bodies, but in our minds – and the two are linked.

There are two main answers, therefore, to this question.

The first is dealing with the crisis as it unfolds. That’s where sleep hygiene comes in and it is recommended that people create a relaxing environment.

Some examples are lavender essential oils, soothing music, adjusting the temperature of the room, eliminating any external noises, etc. Furthermore, they can take a few deep breaths and slow down their mind.

The other thing they can do is more long-term which includes working on managing their mind so it doesn’t run away with them at night.

To do this, they can adopt a daily meditation practice which works to train the mind to be calm, focused, and centered.

Only Use Your Bed For Sleeping – And Skip The Alcohol

Dr. Candice Seti Psy.D., The Insomnia Therapist

• Be Consistent with Your Sleep Schedule – Your body thrives on routine and schedule. And the more routine you give it, the better it adapts to it.

Sleep is no exception. But with all that is going on in this world right now, people have fallen out of their sleep routines and that can fuel health problems, both physical and emotional.

Following the same sleep schedule (same bed time, same awake time) every day, sets up your internal clock to do most of the work for you!

It will start to cue you when it’s time for bed, and it will wake up much easier in the morning. Plus, it will take less time to fall asleep and get you the most recovery benefits from your sleep!

• Use Your Bed Only For Sleep – Being home all the time has set us up to start spending more time hanging out on our beds. During the day, watching TV, doing work on laptop, etc.

The problem with this is that our bed should be the thing we connect closest with sleep and sleepiness. We should crawl into bed and immediately feel relaxed and ready for sleep.

But, when we use our bed as a place to watch TV, pay our bills, make phone calls, play with our kids, or any other sort of wakeful activities, we end up changing that connection.

Instead of looking at our bed as a cue for sleepiness, we know associate the bed with wakefulness!

Try and limit the use of your bed to sleeping and sex and move all of your other activities elsewhere. It will make your bed a string cue for sleep!

• Don’t Use Alcohol As A Sleep Aide – Many people consume alcohol in the evening because it helps them sleep. And right now, a lot of people have added that it calms anxiety.

This is a bit of an erroneous belief because what it actually does is help them FEEL LIKE they have less anxiety and FALL asleep, but it doesn’t help them stay asleep or help the quality of their sleep.

In fact, it does just the opposite! Alcohol is a depressant which is why it helps us fall asleep, but because it is metabolized in our body during sleep, it actually interferes with our sleep quality and keeps us from getting the deep, restorative sleep that we need to feel fresh and rested the next day.

Skip the alcohol and try chamomile tea or lavender!

• Get Out Of Bed When You Are Unable to Sleep – Waking up in the middle of the night is frustrating.

The tossing and turning and constant checking of the clock don’t help anything – in fact, they actually make it harder for you to fall asleep.

Staying in bed when you are awake subconsciously connects being in bed with being awake and that is the last thing you want if you want to sleep well!

So, instead of tossing and turning and pretending like you are going to fall back asleep any second, get out of bed for 20 to 30 minutes and engage in a quiet activity (reading, writing, doing a puzzle, etc).

Don’t use this as an opportunity to check the news or the latest coronavirus stats! That will only build physiological arousal and make it that much harder to fall asleep.

Then, when you are feeling sleepy again, go back to bed and try again.

How to sleep better

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Try To Make Peace With Your Insomnia

Ned Presnall, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Director of Plan Your Recovery

Getting good sleep is a core principle of mental hygiene.

It is very hard to maintain a positive mood, have effective emotional regulation, or focus when a person is sleep deprived – it’s an important problem to address.

If you have a sudden challenge with sleep, it may be important to meet with a physician. Sudden inability to sleep may be a sign of an underlying medical condition.

Behavioral interventions can also be helpful. You can start by attending to basic sleep hygiene. This means you should avoid alcohol in the evening, decrease caffeine use (especially in the afternoon), getting some exercise during the day, and doing something healthy after work to wind down and separate from the stress of the day.

This could include reading a book, talking to a friend, or even watching a limited amount of TV.

This may sound counterintuitive, but you should also make an attempt to make peace with your insomnia – a difficult, yet important task.

One of the most challenging aspects of insomnia is that a person starts to feel a lot of fear about having it.

If you’ve gotten several bad nights of sleep, it can feel extremely crucial to get a good night’s sleep. But if you continue to not be able to sleep the next night, you might feel anger, or frustration… which keeps you awake further.

So it’s important to try not to catastrophize not being able to sleep. You can avoid catastrophizing by getting up and reading a book until you feel tired, then returning to bed.

Fighting insomnia with stubbornness or anger won’t take you very far – the trick is to accept the idea of insomnia, and basically cope with it as well as you can.

Ironically, this coping and the calmness that comes with it can help the insomnia go away.

Finally, be mindful about the amount of stress or unresolved concerns that you may be attempting to sleep with. Often when someone can’t sleep, it’s because the brain is still attempting to problem solve.

If you can shift your mind to thinking about something comforting, pleasant, or hopeful, you can activate a different part of your brain.

When your brain thinks that there’s still something it needs to get done, it keeps you awake.

But when your brain is told that it is leisure time, it’s able to dismiss the idea that something needs to be done or fixed immediately. You’re then able to turn off the vigilance of your mind focusing on a problem, and enable yourself to fall asleep.