What to do when you can’t sleep—because lying there won’t help
Being unable to sleep isn’t fun, but lying in bed, getting frustrated, won’t help you drop off. So if you’ve been on the sharp end of too many sleepless nights and are wondering what to do when you can’t sleep, we’ve rounded up five of the best techniques and tips to help you.
68% of Americans (opens in new tab) struggle to fall asleep at least once a week, but if your sleeplessness continues and you can’t pinpoint an obvious reason for it, you may have insomnia or another sleep disorder. In that case speak to a sleep doctor to see what help is available.
And to create the perfect environment for sleep, make sure you have the best mattress for your body type and sleep position, as an uncomfy bed will keep even the best sleepers awake at night.
What to do when you can’t sleep at night
1. Get out of bed and leave the bedroom
The cruel thing about sleeplessness is that you feel physically exhausted. So while getting out of bed might be the last thing you feel like doing when you can’t sleep, it’s a proven training technique for managing insomnia.
The best advice is to head into a different room and do something mundane for around 20 minutes. For example, read a dull book (nothing that will excite your brain) or fold laundry.
Anything that a) removes the pressure for you to fall asleep, and b) helps you feel drowsy again. While sleep schedules are useful, you should only go to bed when you feel tired – just aim to get up at the same time each day.
2. Do a body scan when you can’t sleep
It’s amazing how tense and sore your body can get when you’re tossing and turning all night. A body scan is another sleep technique used in insomnia training, and it enables you to pay attention to the physical sensation of your body and reclaim control over how it feels.
It also switches your brain from panicking about not being able to sleep and focuses you on relaxing instead. Body scans can last from one to 30 minutes, and the more you practise them, the more effective they are. Here’s one of the highest-rated body scans for sleep on YouTube…
3. Practise mindful breathing for insomnia
The longer you lie in bed being unable to sleep, the more you’ll build a negative association between lying there and not sleeping. Physically moving your body to a different spot on the bed to breathe mindfully can help you relax faster. And because you’re still on or around the bed, you’ll start rebuilding positive associations between your bed and sleep.
To practise mindful breathing, focus on how your breath feels and flows on each exhale and inhale; the exhale is when your body relaxes and tension leaves your muscles.
According to Sleep Station (opens in new tab), ‘Focusing on the breath is helpful because it serves as an anchor — something you can turn your attention to at any time if you start to feel stressed or carried away by negative emotions or worries. This technique can be used to help you drift off to sleep.’
Try it tonight with these simple steps:
- Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed
- Notice how different parts of your body feel on the mattress
- Next, focus on how your chest and stomach rise when you inhale
- Now, notice how they fall when you exhale
- If your mind wanders, gently pull it back to your breathe
- Do this for a few minutes before going back to sleep
4. Can’t sleep? Write down your thoughts
Psychologists recommend scheduling ‘worry time’ ahead of bedtime and in a different room, but sometimes sleeplessness at night is caused by a racing mind that catches us by surprise.
If you keep going over your to-do list, get out of bed and jot it down quickly on a pad – keep the lights dim so you don’t wake yourself up even more. By writing them down to deal with tomorrow, you’re processing them so they won’t keep you awake. The positive effects of bedtime writing when you can’t sleep at night are backed by research (opens in new tab).
5. Listen to a sleep podcast or white noise
A dark, silent room can feel oppressive when you can’t sleep. Try some white, pink or brown noise to relax you – many of the best sleep apps use different types of ambient noise, as well as nature sounds like rainfall.
Another option is to listen to a sleep podcast, such as the top-rated Sleep With Me (free on Spotify (opens in new tab)). The host, Dan Ackerman, has an unobtrusive voice and often talks about stories from his childhood, so there’s nothing here to get your brain whirring.
How to sleep better tomorrow night
1. Create a relaxing bedtime routine
Go to bed when you feel tired, otherwise you’ll have a harder time falling asleep and that could make you anxious that you won’t sleep. The main thing is to get up at the same time every morning, as with time this should help your body get into its own sleep rhythm and learn how to sleep for longer.
There are plenty of things you can include in a relaxing bedtime routine, including taking a warm bath or shower to lower your core temperature (helps your body sleep better), doing some gentle stretches, knitting, or a sleep meditation.
2. Double down on your sleep hygiene
Positive sleep habits set you up for better sleep long-term. We talk a lot about good sleep hygiene at Tom’s Guide, and it includes the following:
- Ditch caffeine, alcohol and sugar several hours before bed
- Switch to dim lighting in the evenings to signal to your body that it’s time to wind down for sleep (helps with melatonin production)
- Clear away bedroom clutter, turn down your bed and allow fresh air to circulate
- Switch tech to night time mode – or better still, put it away an hour before bed and out of sight in the night.
3. Make your bed the comfiest place for sleeping
An uncomfy bed is a recipe for broken sleep. Unsure what type of mattress would suit you? We have multiple guides to help, from the best cheap mattresses for tight budgets, to the best mattresses for side sleepers (ideal for reducing hip pain). There are beds dedicated to specific health issues too, such as cooling mattresses to combat overheating.
It isn’t just about your mattress though – what you rest your head on also affects your sleep comfort. Why? Because when you have the best pillow for your body and sleep position, your spine will be aligned and you won’t be bent out of shape. Pick a breathable duvet or comforter to help you feel secure but not hot, and consider using a weighted blanket if you’re dealing with sleep anxiety.