What to Do When You Can’t Sleep?

What to Do When You Can't Sleep

Are you having trouble finding sleep at night? Insomnia may be the culprit.

Basically, insomnia means you can’t sleep at night. You have it when you struggle to fall asleep, stay awake for hours, rise up too early, or feel too tired upon waking up. And the episode is recurring—totally different from the occasional sleepless night.

As the most common sleep disorder in the U.S, insomnia affects at least one-third of American adults. This article provides you with plenty of information so you can beat insomnia and achieve a good sleep pattern. Even if you’re suffering from another sleep disorder, this guide contains quick tips that can help you reboot your internal snooze system.  

What to Do When You Can’t Sleep

A lack of sleep for nights on end can affect your memory, job performance, relationships, driving, and mood. Health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity may also arise. 

To put an end to your plight, you can make a few lifestyle changes. Creating good sleep habits, also called sleep hygiene, starts with:

  • Creating A Sleep Routine

Sleep at the same time in the evening and wake up at the same time each morning. Develop this habit for 66 days, according to recent findings. Some also say you only need 21 days, while others promise results in eight days. 

Regardless of the duration, the goal is to train your brain to know when it’s time for you to sleep.

  • Having A Pre-Sleep Mode

Think about how volume settings can be adjusted up or down gradually. What if you also end your day in small degrees?

For example, the National Sleep Foundation recommends winding down for at least 30 minutes. You can read a book or meditate before you go to bed. Dim the lights an hour or so before sleeping. 

  • Listening to A Guided Body Scan Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is not only effective during the day. It also works wonders as a natural sleep aid at night. 

So when counting sheep fails, try listening to a guided body scan. This technique shifts your focus away from random thoughts and toward individual parts of your body. As a result, your mind and body become more and more relaxed. A guided body scan is also recommended for people experiencing the crippling effects of stress and anxiety.

Read our resource on How to Sleep Well in the Age of Stress.

MIT Medical provides resources on sleep on this page. Look for the 20-minute body scan link under “Mindful Meditation Tools”. There are also shorter or longer options on YouTube. When you’ve grown familiar with the technique, you can simply start a body scan without an audio guide.  

  • Getting Up If You’ve Been Awake for 20 Minutes

In some movies or shows, a character would leave the bed after a fruitless attempt to sleep. Their companion would notice their absence, start looking for them and discover them in the study or kitchen. The character, of course, would just shrug when asked and say, “I can’t sleep”.

It turns out getting up and doing something is better than staying awake in bed. After all, tossing and turning for over 20 minutes won’t get you anywhere. Find a relaxing activity such as reading a book or listening to music. Don’t force yourself to doze off, and slumber may actually come.

Sleeping in a comfortable bed may also do wonders. Replacing your old, uncomfortable one is a good place to start. Read our Most Comfortable Mattress Review to learn about your options.

What Not to Do When You Can’t Sleep

What to Do When You Can't Sleep
  • Taking Naps Close to Bedtime

Those 20-minute power naps have been known to boost energy during waking hours. However, you should avoid taking naps late in the afternoon or early in the evening. You will find it hard to fall asleep if you sneak in pockets of sleep so close to bedtime.

  • Prolonging the Use of Phones In Bed

Electronic devices induce wakefulness because they facilitate mental activity and expose you to light. The light they emit is powerful enough to trick your brain into staying alert. That’s because it has been using the signal of dark and light in setting your body’s circadian rhythm. And the artificial light coming off your smartphone is giving your brain the wrong cue.

While banning electronics from the bedroom may be unrealistic, you can set rules regarding their use. For instance, you can turn off your gadgets as you wind down one hour before bedtime. 

  • Eating Certain Meals or Drinking Coffee Late in the Evening

You’re probably aware of the effects of caffeine on the nervous system. It’s a known brain and mood stimulant. You feel more awake and less tired after downing one cup. This instant reaction is required, say, when you’re going to work or pulling all-nighters.

But if you want to fall asleep at night, don’t drink coffee around dinnertime.

Speaking of dinner, scarfing down bacon cheeseburger before hitting the sheets can be bad. There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to how late should you eat before sleeping. However, pay attention to what you eat. According to a Health article, certain foods and drinks are considered “sleep stealers”:

1. Bacon cheeseburger
2. Chicken
3. Dark chocolate
4. Energy drinks like Red Bull
5. Soda such as Mountain Dew
6. Wine

  • Worrying About Things

Have you ever caught yourself thinking about so many things while lying in bed? As you have the ability to notice your thoughts, so you have the power to stop them.

Worrying won’t solve your problem. And it will only make you feel less rested tomorrow. In order to close the loop, you have to write down what’s bothering you.

Is it the hundred tasks you have to finish in 24 hours? Or maybe the exam you’ll be taking in the morning?

Before calling it a day, draft a list of the most important things you need to do upon waking up. Or journal what you’re feeling and thinking. Transferring them on paper (skip the Notes app on your phone) will relieve your brain of the load. You can now forget about them. You’ve already processed them outside your head.

Should You Use Sleep Aids?

What to Do When You Can't Sleep

Now, the all-important question: Should you take over-the-counter sleep aids to treat your insomnia?

Most of the available sleeping pills in drugstores are antihistamines. You may be able to buy them without a prescription. And yes, you may even fall asleep fast. However, there’s no scientific proof yet to back up their efficacy. If you’ve taken antihistamines for allergies or colds, you know they make you feel drowsy. But as a side effect, drowsiness may also continue the next day.

How about prescription drugs?

Insomnia medications are common in the U.S. Doctors can prescribe them to you, but you should combine them with good sleeping habits.

Here are some examples of prescription sleep drugs:

  • Antidepressants
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Doxepin
  • Eszopiclone 
  • Ramelteon 
  • Suvorexant
  • Zaleplon
  • Zolpidem

Health professionals also strongly advise you to take sleep aids immediately before bed. You should never pop a pill if you’re performing high-concentration activities such as driving.

In 2007, the Food and Drug Authority warned the public about rare allergic reactions and complex sleep-related behaviors caused by prescription sleep aids. Then, in 2013, the FDA issued another warning concerning the extended effects of sleep medications the day after taking them.

How Else to Treat Insomnia

What to Do When You Can't Sleep

You probably have experienced sleepless nights for one day to a few weeks. This is called acute insomnia. If you have chronic insomnia, the symptoms last three nights a week for three months. In some cases, it can be longer. 

If you want to get properly diagnosed, your health care provider should do most or all of the following steps:

  • An evaluation of your condition, which includes: a physical exam, a medical history, and a sleep history.
  • A requirement that you keep a sleep diary. Here, you will write down your sleep patterns as well as certain experiences throughout the day (Do you feel drowsy, tired, etc.?).
  • An interview with your bed partner, if there’s one. He or she will be asked about your sleep quantity and quality.
  • A recommendation to a sleep center. You will be asked to undergo tests in a sleep center such as the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine.
  • A suggestion of behavioral therapy. Your health care provider should first treat the underlying causes of chronic insomnia. If needed, he or she will recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia or CBT-I.

CBT-I is a structured program that involves the recognition and reframing of beliefs that are affecting your ability to sleep. It can work well for people who are suffering from primary insomnia, those having physical problems such as chronic pain, or those with mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. 

There are certified Behavioral Sleep Medicine specialists that can help you overcome chronic insomnia. A sleep therapist will walk you through CBT-I techniques such as stimulus control therapy, sleep restriction, sleep hygiene, relaxation training, and sleep environment improvement.

Final Thoughts

You’ve read about various ways to deal with insomnia. It is the most common sleep disorder, so there is enough information about it for you to use. There is hope for you to break out of the cycle of sleepless nights.

Start by following the quick tips outlined in this guide. And don’t hesitate to connect with your health care provider for a complete picture: from diagnosis to cure.