Counting Sheep: Here’s What To Do When You Can’t Sleep

Portrait of a sleeping woman of the 20s in home clothes, happily relaxing at home and yawning because of insomnia isolated on a light background.

Key Points

  • Not knowing what to do when you can't sleep is a common problem.

  • Practices that calm anxiety, focus the mind, and relax the body help you fall asleep.

  • Knowing what to do when you can't sleep improves overall health.

It happens to everyone. You go to bed, turn out the lights, shut your eyes — and sleep doesn't happen. Maybe you nod off, but then you wake up for seemingly no reason at night and can't get back to sleep. Either way, you're left with the same question: What do you do now?

Because so many people have faced this problem, you have many options. You might prefer one or another, depending on the situation and your unique physiology. Ultimately, you must experiment to determine what works best for you. Learn more about what to do when you can't sleep.

What To Do If You Can't Get To Sleep

Sleep is often like a Chinese finger puzzle: The harder you try to reach your goal, the more elusive it is. One approach to solving the sleep puzzle is to stop trying. Find something to do that takes your mind off sleep entirely, and you might find that it comes on its own.

Two of the most common reasons for sleeplessness are anxiety and boredom. The latter might sound surprising because people usually think of boredom as something that puts them to sleep. However, a specific type of restless mental boredom leads to "sleep procrastination," as the brain lights on one thing after another instead of going to sleep. Inverse's Sarah Sloat says sleep procrastination "is boredom that prevents you from settling down and going to slumbertown [sic]. And it’s a problem that some scientists argue we need to pay better attention to."

Woman clutches to pillow wearing eye mask

Ultimately, boredom stems from a lack of self-regulation, which is just psychologists' term for self-control. While there are many ways to do that, mindfulness is the most useful tactic at 2 a.m. You don't have to go for the full-blown Zen meditation, however. Just a simple practice like focusing on your breathing can reduce mental itchiness. Counting your blessings is another practice to focus your thoughts and take your mind off whatever TV shows you could be streaming.

If you're not sleeping because of anxiety or stress, you want to choose an activity that takes your mind off whatever is worrying you and helps you feel calm. Again, this depends on your wiring, but many possibilities exist.

Clean or Organize Something

Anxiety and stress frequently come from a feeling of mounting chaos or life spinning out of control. Therefore, even a mundane task like cleaning the house or reorganizing your shoe collection can help keep the nerves at bay. Tidying up the bedroom is often beneficial because it is satisfying to see it right before you turn off the light.

Take a Bath

Hot baths do double duty when it comes to sleep: They relax you while you're taking them, and there's evidence that they help you fall asleep faster by triggering melatonin production. The mellowing properties of hot baths come from the heat relaxing your muscles and dilating your blood vessels. Enhance those qualities by adding a soothing essential oil like lavender to the bathwater.

Man with headache unable to fall asleep

Read — But Choose Carefully

When lying awake at night, pulling the phone off the nightstand and scrolling is tempting, but it's a bad idea. The blue light from the screen disrupts melatonin production, and the rapid-fire stimuli of social media and other online amusements often induce that state of restless boredom mentioned earlier. Also, most sleep experts recommend against doing anything in bed besides sleep and sex because your bed must be a haven of relaxation.

Therefore, a better idea is to go to another room and read a book for a while. A longer-form piece that engages your mind also keeps your brain off your worries. The subject matter is up to you, but avoid nerve-wracking subjects!

Do a Puzzle or Craft

Those analog activities from childhood — jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, coloring books — were as engrossing as they were because they engaged both your thinking and motor functions. Without the blue light from electronic screens, they might just help you sleep like a baby.

Write in a Journal

Many find that writing their thoughts and worries before bed helps them sleep better. You can transfer stressful thoughts from your head to the page. Moreover, something that seems monstrous in your mind often looks less intimidating in black and white print.

These activities are helpful, but they take time you might not have. What if it's a school night, or you must wake up early tomorrow? In that case, you're probably asking a different question.

Mature woman is awake and can't sleep

How To Force Yourself To Sleep?

As already noted, trying to force sleep is often counterproductive. Nonetheless, people have experimented with different methods, and some swear by the following techniques.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Psychiatrist Edmund Jacobson developed this stress-relief technique in the 1920s, which is handy not just for sleep but for any time you need to relax. It involves going through your whole body — whether you start with your head or your feet doesn't really matter — and tensing the muscles in each part for about 10 seconds. You then gradually relax the muscles for 20 seconds, releasing all the tension. Complete relaxation often requires doing each muscle group a few times.

One added note: Ensure you are breathing steadily through the whole exercise. Holding your breath when you tense the muscles is natural but only increases overall tension.

The Military Method

As you might imagine, serving in World War II was not conducive to great sleep. Lack of sleep made soldiers miserable and increased the likelihood of deadly mistakes in the field. The U.S. military invited a sleep researcher named Bud Winter to devise a technique to help soldiers fall asleep fast — even under the pressures of battle.

Winter's technique is like a sped-up version of progressive muscle relaxation plus mind-clearing. Instead of tensing the muscles first, focus on relaxing each group. First, you relax the forehead, the jaw, and all the other muscles in your face. Relax your shoulders, arms, and hands. To relax your chest, take a single deep breath and hold, then completely let go of all tension and resume breathing slowly. Last, focus on letting your legs go limp.

Once you do that, jump to the mind-clearing. Some prefer visualizing a calming image like the sea or a blue sky. Others try to think of nothing at all — which isn't always easy but try repeating the mantra "Don't think" to yourself until your brain clears. Adherents of the military method swear that it knocks them out in two minutes.

Woman is awake into early morning unable to sleep

The 4-7-8 Breathing Method

You may have noticed that breathing correctly is vital to both techniques. The 4-7-8 method, popular in integrated-medicine circles, focuses entirely on breathing and is very simple. Just inhale while counting to four, hold your breath while you count to seven, and breathe out while you count to eight.

It may not sound like much, but breathing relates to your nervous system and blood pressure. Slowing your breathing down can relax your whole body.

Chill the Room

Excess heat is a surprisingly common reason for poor sleep. In many ways, human bodies remain attuned to sleeping outdoors or in unheated houses, so what felt like a comfortable room temperature when you went to bed might feel stifling when you wake up in the middle of the night. If you notice yourself sweating as you lie awake, try adjusting the thermostat or (if your neighborhood is quiet) opening a window.

Prevention Is the Best Cure

Sleepless nights happen to almost everyone at some point, so if it occurs occasionally, it's nothing to worry about. However, if struggling to get to sleep is a frequent problem, it's best not to wait until you're lying awake to tackle it but to address the underlying cause.

Ask Your Doctor About Sleep Disorders

Sleep apnea, circadian rhythm disorders, and chronic insomnia affect your sleep. Sleeplessness can also be a side effect of other psychiatric problems like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Addressing those issues is more complex than a few breathing techniques, so find professional help to provide holistic treatment.

Adult has difficulty falling asleep

Consider the Drugs and Alcohol You're Taking

You probably already know that stimulants like caffeine and pseudoephedrine harm sleep, but other drugs not known as uppers, like antidepressants, also have possible sleep-disrupting side effects. If you're on long-term medication and notice changes in your sleep, ask your doctor if there might be a connection.

Drinking alcohol before bed may help you get to sleep, but it often increases the odds of waking up at night. That's because the "rebound" as the alcohol wears off stimulates your body at the wrong time of night, making it difficult to get back to sleep.

Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

"Sleep hygiene" is your overall routine and sleeping environment, which contribute to the quality of your sleep (or lack thereof). Commonly recommended sleep hygiene practices include the following:

  • Keep your bedroom cool (see above) as well as dark. Quiet is also usually recommended, though some sleep better with white noise.

  • Turn off all unnecessary lights as you draw near bedtime. The darkness, like the cold, signals to your body that it's sleep time.

  • Conversely, try to get as much sunlight as possible during the day. It's common for urbanites to keep the curtains drawn for privacy or to keep the reflections off their screens, but getting no sun messes up your circadian rhythms — and your health in general.

  • Even if you don't have regular working hours, keep a regular sleep schedule. This helps your body to get into a sound sleep habit.

  • Get regular exercise, but keep it at least a few hours before bedtime. It can take a while for the energy to wear off.

  • Avoid heavy eating and drinking before bed, especially involving alcohol.

  • Reserve your caffeine intake for the first half of the day. It takes as much as eight hours to wear off.

  • Restrict your electronic device use near bedtime, and put the screens in night mode if you do use them. Blue-light glasses are often helpful as well.

  • Try to avoid using your bed for activities other than sleep and sex. You want your brain to associate the bedroom with relaxation.

Woman sits on edge of bed awake at night

Don't Sweat the Sleepless Nights

Few people are perfect sleepers, so don't freak out if you can't sleep one night — that only makes it worse! Instead, focus on your whole health: manage your mental and physical wellness and practice good sleep hygiene. If you have trouble sleeping one night, maybe it's your brain telling you that you need to do some work: attend to a task, write in a journal, resolve an issue, or even create something new.

Even if you just need to get to sleep, progressive muscle relaxation and mindful breathing provide skills that are useful not just for the occasional sleepless night but anytime you need to relax and refocus. Don't wait till the next time you're wide awake in the small hours of the night — start working on better sleep today!

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