Nine simple tips for when you can’t sleep

man lying awake in bed

Most of us have waken up in the middle of the night and been unable to get back to sleep. It can be a frustrating experience, especially if you have a big day ahead of you.

Waking up extra early and having trouble getting back to sleep even though you haven’t hit the recommended hours is called sleep maintenance insomnia. This type of insomnia often causes worry about not being able to fall back to sleep and not getting enough sleep. This interferes with sleep further, creating a vicious cycle.

Here’s what to do if you’re finding it hard to get back to sleep in the middle of the night.

Get out of bed

It may not sound like the obvious thing to do, but if you can’t get back to sleep within 20 minutes or so after waking in the middle of the night, go to another room.

In this situation, it’s best to get out of bed and do something calming until you feel sleepy again. This could involve reading a book, listening to soft music, or doing gentle stretching exercises. Staying in bed and trying to force yourself to sleep is likely to make the problem worse.

Don’t keep checking the clock

It’s tempting to look at the clock to see how many precious hours you have left to try to sleep, but it can be detrimental. Seeing the time ticking by can cause more stress and anxiety, making it harder to fall back to sleep. Turn your clock toward the wall, put your watch in a drawer, and resist the urge to look at your phone.

Read: Study pinpoints the ideal amount of sleep as you age

Avoid looking at screens

Don’t rely on your phone to provide a distraction to your inability to sleep. The blue light from any screen, whether a tablet, phone, or laptop, signals to your brain that it’s time to wake up. Catching sight of unpleasant news or being reminded of meetings arranged for the next day can also stimulate your brain and send thoughts into a tailspin.

If you’re trying to avoid screens to get a better night’s sleep, it might be a good idea to avoid them for at least an hour or two before you go to bed.

Avoid trying to be productive

You may be tempted to tackle chores or work to make the most of your extra time awake, but don’t. The middle of the night isn’t the right time to be productive. If you do achieve something, your brain will be rewarded for waking up when it shouldn’t. That makes it more likely to happen again.

If you can’t sleep, the best thing to do is to relax and try to wind down.

Meditate or try a breathing exercise

Meditation and deep breathing can relax your body and take your mind off the stress of not sleeping.

There are a number of different techniques you can try, so it may be worth doing some research to find one that suits you.

One exercise you can use is called the 4-7-8 breathing technique. With this technique, you inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds.

Alternatively, you could try simply focusing on your breath and counting each inhale and exhale until you feel yourself relax and drift back off to sleep.

Read: Meditation, a beginner’s guide to get you started

Try progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that can be used to reduce stress and tension in the body. It involves contracting and relaxing different muscle groups in a systematic way, starting with the feet and legs and working your way up the body.

Tense the muscles in each group at about three-quarters strength for approximately five seconds before releasing the tension on an exhale. Keep the muscles relaxed for around 10 seconds before starting on the next group. It may be helpful to repeat something such as ‘relax’ in your head as you relax each muscle group.

Start counting

If your brain starts listing all the things you need to do in the future, or all the embarrassing things you’ve done in the past, try counting backwards from one hundred. You’ll need to get out of the thinking cycle before you can go back to sleep. Counting can stop your mind from thinking about the past or future and keep it in the present.

Try earplugs

If you can’t stop focusing on the wind rattling the window or your partner snoring, try earplugs. You should try to make your bedroom as quiet as possible, but earplugs can offer extra protection when noise breaks in.

A fan or white noise machine can also block sounds that can keep you awake.

Read: How to overcome the bad habits disrupting your sleep

Don’t turn on any harsh lights

Even if you get out of bed, resist the temptation to turn on bright, overhead lights. As with phone screens, the bright light can interfere with your body’s production of melatonin and stimulate wakefulness.

Need some more inspiration?

Watch this Ted Talk from sleep scientist Matt Walker.

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

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Written by Ellie Baxter

Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.

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  1. When I am distracted by thinking about stressful or disturbing “havtas” I think through alphabetical listings (e.g. plants, car brands, boys/girls names) as a neutral distractor which helps me fall asleep. It becomes a bit like a mantra which is associated (operant conditioning) with sleep. Works fairly well for me.

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