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What to do (and not do) when you can't fall asleep

You’re lying in bed, ready to sleep, but sleep just isn’t coming. Does this sound familiar?

Whether it’s right after your head hits the pillow or in the middle of the night, the inability to fall asleep is always an unwelcome guest. So what are you supposed to do? It may sound counterintuitive, but instead of lying down, you should get up.

If you find yourself lying in bed trying to fall asleep for more than 20 minutes, get up out of bed and go somewhere else. But don’t stray too far. Maybe relax in a chair in the bedroom, or move to a different room in your home altogether. It’s important to keep the association you have with your bed around sleep only.

Getting out of bed and moving yourself to a different room is a great place to start. For some people, the shift in environment helps them take their mind off how awake they feel. For others, a low-energy, relaxing activity can induce sleepiness.

What activity should you do? Follow your first instinct and what you naturally gravitate toward. This could be playing relaxing music at a soothing volume. Or perhaps you’re inclined to doing a low-stakes activity like working on a crossword or jigsaw puzzle. Others enjoy reading a book or magazine, or putting pen to paper and writing whatever comes to mind in a notebook or journal. You can try meditating in the dark and there are plenty of apps that can guide you to develop this skill.

Whatever low-energy activity you chose to do, it’s important to stay in low light. Special photoreceptors in our retinas pick up on when our environment changes from dark to light, affecting our circadian rhythms—the closest thing we have to an “internal clock.” Humans are hard-wired to respond to lightness and darkness, and when our brain receives signals that our environment is shifting from one to the other, it acts accordingly. Avoid bright light, especially blue light.  Bright light signals to your brain that the sun is rising. Some people find that wearing an eye mask helps them shut out errant light and can help get their circadian rhythm back in sync. Others purchase blackout curtains for the bedroom.

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This brings us to three activities that you should avoid doing if you want to fall back asleep, although the urge to do them will probably be strong.

  • Don’t look at your phone
  • Don’t turn on the TV
  • Don’t use your computer

Avoiding screens of all types is a wise move for people who can’t fall asleep. Although some associate them with passive, low-key activities, all that artificial light will likely keep you awake for much longer.

Hopefully, you’ll soon develop an awareness that sleepiness is setting in again, and go back to bed. Once you’re lying down again, exhale slowly and clear your mind of “noisy” thoughts. For many people, this is easier said than done, so try this exercise: do a slow check-in with the parts of your body that are touching your mattress.

Start with your feet or your head and work your way in the opposite direction. Do this as slowly as you can. Acknowledge each part and observe how the sheet is resting on your foot, how the blanket feels on your arm, or how your head lends weight to the pillow. This is not a time to be critical or over-analyze, your job is just to simply “notice.”

Not being able to fall asleep every now and then is annoying, but what if your difficulty falling asleep is habitual, and possibly something more serious?

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder among adults, with about 30 percent of adults reporting acute insomnia at some point in their life and 10 percent reporting chronic insomnia. Insomnia is characterized by difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or a combination of both. Below, you’ll find some suggestions and tips on what to do if you’re struggling with insomnia.

There are two main kinds of insomnia: acute and chronic. The more common of the two, acute insomnia is often is brought on by stressful, yet temporary, situations, like stress in the workplace, a traumatic incident, or temporary family stressors like job loss, illness, divorce, death, and things of that nature. Acute insomnia lasts for a couple of days or a few weeks at most. Acute insomnia may be treated with the short-term use of prescription sleeping pills.

Chronic insomnia lasts for three months or longer, and the reasons behind it can vary. Chronic insomnia may be worsened by untreated sleep disorders, certain prescription medicines, other medical conditions like chronic pain, or mood disorders like anxiety or depression. Chronic insomnia responds best to cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI), a treatment available from a board-certified sleep specialist.

A lack of quality sleep brought on by too much on your mind, insomnia, sleep apnea, or other sleep disorders can impair cognitive functioning during the day, and leave you feeling tired all the time. Hopefully, developing habits around bedtime, light sources, and what to do when you can’t sleep will help reduce your instances of insomnia. If these problems persist, however, you should see a doctor that specializes in sleep disorders.


Tom Goff is the Co-founder and CTO of Beddr. Prior to Beddr, he was a founding member of numerous health tech and medical device startups including Shockwave Medical and Kerberos Proximal Solutions and holds over 40 patents. Tom studied Product Design at Stanford University and is an active StartX alumni mentor.

November 1, 2018