It’s the middle of the night and you’re lying awake in bed. The moon is out. Maybe your partner is snoring or the house is making its nocturnal sighs. You close your eyes and, somehow, someway, try to coax your body to sleep. But it’s no use. And, actually, you’re worse because of it. By thinking about how you’re not sleeping, you’re now fully aware that you’re not sleeping and have allowed a rush of other thoughts to enter your brain. Now, another half hour has passed. That’s another half hour of not sleeping. But maybe, just maybe, if you can just close your eyes and try to sleep for real this time, you’ll get a few hours of sack time before the day begins. But no. When you wake up and can’t go back to sleep, it can feel like there are no solutions. It’s a vicious cycle.
But there are ways to handle it. The first step is to understand your objective: distract yourself so you can let sleep takeover. People try too hard. They look at the clock and try to convince themselves to sleep and get caught in this cycle,” says Dr. Abhinav Singh, M.D. the Medical Director for the Indiana Sleep Center. “It’s like over-stringing a guitar — you’re going to get too tight, too high strung. And this will drive up your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is anti-sleep.”
Quieting your brain sounds difficult, and it certainly can be at times of stress. But, armed with the right routine, you can break the cycle. While the basics of good sleep — routine, proper self-care throughout the day, and so forth — remain the same and are powerful tools for conditioning the brain to achieve good rest, per Dr. Singh. there are a few things you can do in the moment to sleep when you can’t. Here’s what to do.
A (Very) Brief Word on Insomnia
First, some things to know about insomnia. Insomnia is not only the inability to sleep or that the sleep you achieve is of poor quality, but also when you have repeated awakenings after which you have trouble falling back asleep. It’s certainly a bit more complicated than that, but for our purposes, that’s enough. One of the most popular explanations for insomnia is known as the “3P Model” that was coined by Dr. Arthur Spielman and offers a guiding principal for the causes of the disorder.
The 3Ps, per Dr. Singh, refer to predisposing constitutional factors, precipitating factors, and perpetuating factors. Predispositions refer to hard-to-change, ingrained issues such as anxiety or a harsher reaction to stress, that could lead to insomnia. The second P, precipitating factors, refers to such issues as a pre-existing medical condition, a death in the family, or some other major life event that directly impacts sleep. The final P, perpetuating factors, are the various ways a person is trying to handle insomnia whether correctly or incorrectly.
“The last P is really the only one we truly have control over,” says Dr. Singh. “It refers to behaviors relative to development and maintenance of insomnia. And maybe you are looking at screens, constantly checking the time, or anything else that may be counterproductive to achieving sleep.” The trick is to make the right choices to get good habits that let sleep come to you.
What to Do When You Can’t Sleep: 7 Tips to Help
Leave Your Bed
That’s right. If you’re unable to fall back asleep in 15 or 20 minutes, get up and go somewhere else. Have a guest room? Great. Go there. But a couch will also do. One of the worst things you can do if you’re having a hard time sleeping is to stay in bed and think about not being able to sleep. “Don’t lay there struggling because your brain will learn ‘This is the boxing ring where we fight the sleep every night,’” says Dr. Singh. “The bed is for sleep or intimacy. Not sleeping, no intimacy? Don’t be in bed. That’s how you teach your brain to relate your bed to sleep. The longer you lie there, the more your stress will mount and the worse your chances will be to fall asleep.
Don’t Look at the Clock
This is tricky, but it’s important. If you understand what time it is, you will likely start to think “oh, it’s 4:15, maybe I can get two hours of sleep before I have to get up,” and perpetuate the vicious cycle. “It’s so important to resist the temptation to look at the clock,” says Dr. Singh. “As it will only make you realize how much sleep you have missed.” That means, yes, resisting the temptation to look at your phone.
Avoid Screens or Harsh Lights
One of the keys to Good Sleep 101 is limiting the amount of light you receive before bed. But this also remains true when you’re having trouble sleeping. Light is a natural signal to our body that it’s time to rise and it decreases the slow-drip of melatonin we receive. So, avoid turning on any bright lights (installing a dim motion-sensor light in the bathroom might be of interest) and scrolling on your phone to pass the time. The latter is especially true, as reading the news or seeing headlines at night, especially in our particularly high-strung era, will only increase stress.
Read a Book or Listen to a Podcast
Once on a couch or in another room, crack open a book or listen to a podcast. Either will focus your mind to make you stop thinking about sleeping and let sleep come to you. “It will draw your attention so that you’re not worrying about sleep and thus let sleep naturally come,” says Dr. Singh.
Try The 4-8 Breathing Technique…
The name of the game when you can’t sleep is calming yourself down. One of the best ways to do that — in the middle of the night or anytime you’re feeling stressed — is to do some deep breathing. Dr. Singh recommends a simple 4-8 technique. That is, slowly inhale while counting to four seconds, and then exhale for eight seconds. “What you’re doing is slowing down your breathing to reduce the cortisol level and inducing a state of calm,” he says. “Plus your brain is locked onto that process.”
…Or Some Progressive Deep Muscle Relaxation
Similar to deep breathing is this relaxation technique that’s often used in anxiety management. The idea is, starting from your toes and moving up to your ankles, knees, thighs, and every other muscle that you can voluntarily control or tense, you clench them for three seconds and then relax. you count to three and relax. “Again, this is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that’s intended to focus your mind on the clenching while relaxing all the muscles in your body,” say Dr. Singh. “It’s relaxing and hard to drift away into other thoughts while focusing on this.”
Try Some White Noise
Another way to give your mind a focal point is to use some white noise. Maybe it’s rain. Maybe it’s the wind. Maybe it’s a crackling fire. Maybe it’s just the drone of the fan. Whichever you chose, listening to a constant sound is an excellent way to draw the mind’s attention and calm it down enough for sleep to arrive.
Proper sleep hygiene is the key to proper restorative rest. If you’re not adhering to good principals during the day — avoiding screens before bed, limiting caffeine, not getting enough sunlight, not working out enough, and so on — sleep will be hard to achieve. “The brain loves routine,” says Dr. Singh. “And only when one follows proper steps during the day will they see less problems during the night.”
If you suffer from chronic insomnia, don’t expect a quick fix all of a sudden. “You can’t develop a six pack in two days at the gym,” says Dr. Singh. “It’s a process to get back on track. But with good routines you can get there.” If you’re still struggling, it may be time to talk a sleep doctor. Help is out there.