There's no one cause for our chronic lack of sleep or for what wakes us up, but things like stress and worry play a big role. Poor diet, artificial lights in the bedroom, and increased technology use can also be factors.
If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, there are a lot of things you can do to help.
Below, 15 things to do when you can't fall (back) asleep:
1. Focus on breathing
When you can't fall asleep, or you wake up in the middle of the night tossing and turning, your anxiety levels go up and your breathing tends to become shallow.
Instead of focusing on your frustration, try to pay attention to your breath and make sure it's deep and fulfilling.
That's because slow, deep breaths turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, relax your muscles, and slow your heart rate—all positive changes that can help you snooze.
2. Listen to soft music
Music has a substantial effect on your mood (can you listen to your favorite song without smiling?), and in the same way, it can help you sleep.
In one study, researchers placed 93 participants with sleep complaints into three groups. One group was instructed to listen to classical music, another was told to listen to an audiobook, and the last received no intervention.
According to another study, the more you listen to music, the more your sleep quality improves4.
If you can't sleep, try slipping on some headphones and listening to music for a little while. Look for something soft and soothing and avoid anything with a fast tempo or aggressive language.
3. Take a magnesium supplement
Researchers from one study gave participants who couldn't sleep 500 mg of active magnesium every day for eight weeks.
While it's best to get on a regular, long-term magnesium supplementation schedule6 if you're having persistent sleep problems, the supplement can help promote calm in the moment, too.*
4. Try progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that's meant to reduce physical tension and break up the obsessive thoughts that are preventing you from falling asleep.
The simple technique involves tensing the muscles all over your body, one by one, and then relaxing them again.
While there hasn't been a lot of scientific investigation into it, an older study found that self-proclaimed insomniacs were able to reduce the time it took to fall asleep7 by engaging in 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation each day.
Next time you're lying in bed awake, start at the top of your body and tense each muscle group and then let it relax.
5. Imagine your "happy place"
If your sleep trouble is due to repetitive thoughts, picturing your "happy place," like the beach, a river, or a waterfall, can help break the cycle by switching your brain from focusing on your worries to something relaxing instead.
To try it, close your eyes and imagine the place where you feel most relaxed and happy.
Your mind may jump back and forth between this imagery and worrisome thoughts, but when you notice that happening, keep focusing your mind back to your happy place.
6. Get out of bed
It may seem counterintuitive to get up when you're trying to fall asleep, but sleep experts recommend getting out of bed if you've been trying to fall asleep for 20 minutes with no luck.
If you're feeling restless, get up and walk around a little bit. Leave your bedroom and go read a book or listen to music.
Be careful not to turn on any harsh lights, though, and stay away from digital screens, like the TV or your phone. The blue light emitted from these devices can make it harder to fall asleep.
When you start to feel tired and your eyelids get heavy, head back to your room and try again.
7. Keep a "worry journal"
Instead of reading a book, you can also spend that 20 minutes writing in what's called a "worry journal."
In some cases, lack of sleep is a result of pervasive or worrisome thoughts that you can't get out of your head.
You may be worrying about something that went wrong that day or focused on what seems like a never-ending to-do list for the next day.
8. Drop lavender essential oil on wrists, ears, and neck
Research shows that some of the active compounds in lavender essential oil turn off your sympathetic nervous system12, the part of the nervous system that's responsible for stress and increased adrenaline, and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your nervous system that helps you relax.
Lavender also helps regulate GABA, a neurotransmitter that blocks impulses between nerve signals in the brain.
If you're feeling particularly restless, put a few drops on your pillow, too.
9. Get your diffuser going
If you don't want to apply lavender oil directly to your skin, you can reap the benefits of essential oils by diffusing them.
Diffusers disperse the active ingredients of essential oils into the air so they fill the room and enter your body through your nasal passages, where they activate the olfactory nerve14 to send signals to your brain.
In addition to lavender, you can include other essential oils that have been shown to help reduce anxiety and help improve sleep, like:
- Roman chamomile
- Clary sage
Keep in mind, however, that some essential oils aren't safe for pets, especially cats.
If you decide to use a diffuser, stick to the safer essential oils and make sure that your animals have access to another room with fresh air.
10. Change your pajamas
If you get hot at night, swap out flannel or polyester pajamas with something more breathable, like cotton.
Consider your bedding, too. Do you have sheets and a comforter that trap heat and leave you feeling hot and sweaty?
If so, trade them for something more lightweight and breathable that allows your body to regulate its nighttime temperature more effectively.
11. Adjust the temperature of your room
Along the same lines, it's important to make sure the temperature of your bedroom is just right.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends a bedroom temperature of 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep.
Ideally, it's best to set your thermostat an hour or so before you're ready for bed so your bedroom has time to adjust.
But if you wake up hot in the middle of the night or you can't fall asleep and you think your bedroom temperature is to blame, turn on a fan or make other adjustments (like taking a blanket off the bed or changing your pajamas) to get to the right temperature.
12. Put on socks
Another simple trick to help you fall, and stay, asleep is putting on socks.
In one small study17, researchers found that men who wore foot-warming socks to bed fell asleep 7.5 minutes faster, slept an average of 32 minutes longer, and woke up 7.5 fewer times than men who didn't wear socks to bed.
By warming your extremities, you actually stimulate blood flow, which supports temperature regulation18. If you're tossing and turning, cover up your bare feet with any comfortable, but not restrictive, pair of socks.
13. Make sure the room is completely dark
Researchers call nighttime exposure to light the "strongest disrupter of circadian physiology and behavior."
Exposure to light at night has even been linked to depression in older adults.
Make sure your room is completely dark by covering your windows with blinds and blackout curtains.
Unplug any electronics with lights that don't shut off and flip your phone screen-side down, so that it doesn't light up from notifications in the middle of the night.
If you can't get your room completely dark, consider a sleep mask.
14. Try to force yourself to stay awake
Reverse psychology is a real thing—and a powerful method of persuasion. Sleep psychologists use a reverse-psychology-based technique called "paradoxical intention" to help people with insomnia.
The idea behind paradoxical intention is to purposefully engage in the very thing you are trying to avoid.
In this case, instead of lying in bed at night and frantically trying to will yourself to sleep, do the opposite. Try to keep yourself awake. Chances are, you won't succeed.
15. Don't look at the clock
I'm sure we've all been there. You're lying in bed at night and you can't fall asleep, so you continuously check the clock and count down the remaining hours of sleep you'll have if you fall asleep right now.
But checking the clock and obsessing over the time can make things worse, especially if you're looking at the time on your phone, which emits a bright blue light that disrupts your circadian rhythm22.
Instead of actively stressing over the clock, focus on your breathing to try to get back to sleep.
Other ways to practice good sleep hygiene
While these tips can help you fall asleep when you're already in bed, or you wake up in the middle of the night, there are also a lot of other things you can do during the day to help improve your sleep quality at night:
- Avoid eating, especially spicy foods, right before bed.
- Exercise during the day but not too close to bedtime.
- Try to go to bed (and wake up) at the same time every morning.
- Only use your bed for sleeping or sex. Avoid watching TV, reading, or doing work in your bed.
- Take a hot shower right before bed.
- Make sure your sheets are fresh.
- Avoid drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages after 11 a.m. and alcohol at least four hours before bed.
- Don't nap during the day.
- Turn off all technology, including your phone, at least an hour before bed.
The bottom line.
A lack of good sleep can interfere with your quality of life, but there's good news.
There are a lot of things you can do in the moment, and a lot of lifestyle changes you can make, to help you fall asleep faster—and stay asleep longer.
Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.