What to Do When You Can't Fall Asleep, According to Experts
Oleg Breslavtsev / GETTY IMAGES
There are a handful of things you can do to prepare for bedtime, like staying off of your phone, avoiding late afternoon caffeine, and creating a relaxing environment. But what happens when you've pulled out all of the stops and you still can't fall asleep at night? While this can be a frustrating occurrence, there are a few tricks you can use to make sleep easier to find. Before reaching for the television remote or cracking open a book, try practicing sleep techniques you can do with your eyes closed, like breathing exercises or visualization.
Related: Does Sleeping With the TV on Affect the Quality of Your Rest? We Asked Sleep Experts to Weigh In
Reasons You Can't Fall Asleep at Night
Ideally, it should take about 20 to 30 minutes to fall asleep at night. If that isn't the reality for you, there are a few common reasons why. Some more obvious causes include spending too much time in front of screens or consuming caffeine close to bedtime, but racing thoughts is another prevalent reason sleep may be hard to find.
"Many people find they have difficulty shutting off their brains at night," says Wendy Troxel, PhD, clinical psychologist and certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist. "They may have racing thoughts, worries, or stress that interferes with their ability to fall asleep deeply and quickly." Not having a regular sleep schedule can also make it more difficult to fall asleep as your brain doesn't have a good indicator for when it's time to wind down.
Common Sleep Techniques
While sleep techniques are a common way to treat sleep disorders like insomnia, they aren't as effective when they're used on their own or when used infrequently. "With all of these exercises, they are most helpful when they are practiced on a regular basis, and when they're integrated with other healthy sleep practices, including reducing light exposure at night, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and maintaining a consistent sleep-wake schedule seven days a week," says Troxel.
One way to fall asleep at night when you can't is to try breathing exercises. "Most breathing techniques are designed to lower your respiratory rate and heart rate, which helps to facilitate falling asleep," says Aaron Arkin, registered psychotherapist and sleep technologist and founder of the Evolution Sleep insomnia program.
One of the easiest and most effective breathing exercises is known as diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing. "A great way to experience belly breathing is to lie down and place a book on your lower abdomen and breathe deeply in through your nose and then slowly out through your mouth," says Troxel. "As you breathe in, you will notice that the book gently rises and falls with each breath. This type of deeply oxygenated breath is very calming to the nervous system and can reduce anxiety or stress." Try incorporating belly breathing as part of your wind-down routine before bed.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
A form of meditation, progressive muscle relaxation is a strategy used to help reduce anxiety and promote relaxation by tensing and relaxing your muscles. This technique brings awareness to areas of the body where you may be holding tension without realizing it. The method usually occurs in a sequential pattern, starting from your head to your feet. "It can help people fall asleep at night by helping them feel relaxed and reducing the distracting thoughts that can prevent or prolong sleep onset," says Arkin.
When trying progressive muscle relaxation, start by tensing and releasing the muscles in your forehead, your jaw, your shoulders, and so on until you reach your toes. "While tensing a particular muscle group, hold the tension for about 10 seconds, then with a deep exhale completely release all of that tension and continue to breathe deeply for 10 to 20 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group," says Troxel.
As the name implies, visualization is ideal for people who are very visual and may be able to create a scene or imagine something in their mind. "Visualization is my personal go-to method for falling asleep when necessary," says Arkin. "It helps by focusing on a word or a calming image, while pushing the distracting thoughts aside." This strategy is more challenging than some other techniques because it requires being able to keep your mind from wandering, but it's very effective once you get it down.
There are a few different things you can focus on when using visualization, such as the details of a really beautiful and calming scene you've experienced in the past. Alternatively, you can focus on a specific word or number. "I visualize a word, and by concentrating on that word it allows me to focus my mind and push away the distracting and ruminating thoughts that prevent me from falling asleep—either at the beginning of the night or following an awakening in the middle of the night," says Arkin. "The word I use is 'one.' I follow the circle of the 'o', then I follow the stem of the 'n', then I'm out. I almost never get to the 'e,'" he says.