7 Answers for What to Do When You Can’t Sleep, According to a Sleep Specialist

Photo: Getty Images/Yiu Yu Hoi
It's easy to find yourself searching for what to do when you can't sleep when, well, you're staring at a smartphone screen in the middle of the night with bloodshot eyes. You want to be well-rested, like desperately, and yet you're struggling with insufferable bouts of insomnia like you're Edward Norton in Fight Club.

Well, spoiler alert: Not sleeping created lots of problems for him and it's probably not doing you any favors either. So if you find yourself stuck in a no-sleep holding pattern, read on for a few short- and long-term strategies from experts for breaking that detrimental cycle in favor of a surplus of REM. You know, before you go full Tyler Durden.

1. Your bed is only for sleep (and, okay, sex)

Here's where I'm doing this wrong, because I use the bed for sleep, sex, The Sims, self-care, and eating a plate of chocolate chip cookies while watching Labyrinth. This behavior fools our subconscious into thinking the bed is NOT a place for rest, and thus, we teach ourselves that it's not for sleeping.

"You can’t force sleep to happen, and staying in bed awake, frustrated, tossing and turning only continues to teach your mind and body that the bed is for wakeful activities, not sleep," says Shelby Harris, PsyD, sleep-health expert and author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. "The more you only sleep—and have sex—in bed, the more your body learns that the bed is only for those activities." So if find yourself awake in bed, Dr. Harris says to try and relocate and do something quiet, calm, and relaxing in dim lighting.

Once you've bored yourself into being drowsy, it's time to make moves. "Get back in bed only when you’re sleepy, and don’t fall asleep on the couch or in a chair," Dr. Harris says. "Otherwise, you’ll start to teach yourself that those places are better for sleep than your bed."

2. Don't force it

If we put a "pressure" on falling asleep, we amp up our anxiety levels about not being asleep. And what does that do? Keep us from sleeping, and make the whole situation way, way worse—that's what.

"Sometimes, a simple mantra such as, 'If I don’t sleep tonight, I’ll sleep tomorrow, and if not tomorrow then definitely the third,' can help take off the pressure and allow sleep to come when it comes." —sleep expert Shelby Harris, PsyD

"There’s only so much one can do to naturally make sleep come, and lessening the pressure you put on yourself can be really beneficial," Dr. Harris says. So take the edge off by telling yourself you won't explode if you don't fall asleep tonight. "Sometimes, a simple mantra such as, 'If I don’t sleep tonight, I’ll sleep tomorrow, and if not tomorrow then definitely the third,' can help take off the pressure and allow sleep to come when it comes."

3. Sleep train yourself to snooze consistently

Even this is not easy, and not always possible, consistency in schedule could be key to being fully rested. We tend to mess this up over the weekend when we stay out late, sleep in, and then expect to be chipper and rested first thing Monday morning. Suddenly, we can't sleep, and usually it's a strain of social jet lag that's to blame.

"We typically think Monday-night insomnia is due to anxiety about the work and school week coming up," Dr. Harris says. "But the bigger culprit is that you shifted your sleep schedule, slept in on Sunday morning, and simply weren’t awake for enough hours during the day on Sunday to be 'hungry enough' to fall asleep come Sunday night. It's almost as if your body thinks you traveled from NYC to Denver over the weekend and then back without actually going anywhere, hence the term 'social jet lag.'"

So if your regular bedtime is at 11 p.m. on workdays, try to pack it in around the same time on weekends. Yes, even if you think you can afford "one" more drink. Speaking of which...

4. Avoid alcohol 3 hours before bedtime

Come on, you know better. Even though going to a margarita festival can for sure lead you to pass out in bed (horizontally, in combat boots), you're definitely going to get a garbage night of rest. That alone should be enough to break your coffee-to-cabernet cycle.

"Alcohol can help you fall asleep, but it tends to worsen the quality of your sleep." —Harris

"Alcohol can help you fall asleep, but it tends to worsen the quality of your sleep," Dr. Harris says. We have lighter and more broken sleep when alcohol is consumed within the three-hour window.

5. Limit caffeine within 8 hours of bedtime

Related: I am dying for an iced coffee right now, so let me do some quick math: If I normally get to bed at midnight, I have until 4 p.m. to hit up Starbucks, no exceptions. And even if you think you're immune to caffeine and can sleep after a late-night espresso, you probably, like, shouldn't. "What many people don’t know is that caffeine can also make your sleep more broken and lighter overall," Dr. Harris says.

6. Avoid any strenuous exercise close to bedtime

"This can warm your body up too much and make it harder to fall asleep," Dr. Harris explains of bedtime workouts. My accepted understanding of exercise is leisurely walking on a treadmill to the Everything's Coming Up Simpsons podcast, so "strenuous" is never going to be a problem for me—but that's just me. If you can only hit up SLT at 8 p.m., and no earlier, definitely put off sleeping for about an hour or more.

"Instead, consider working out, even 20 minutes of some light cardio is fine, four to six hours before bedtime," Dr. Harris says. "This helps your body to warm up, use some energy, and then begin to cool down all in time for bed."

7. Limit screen time within the hours leading up to bedtime

This one is for all you chronic appsturbators out there. We've all been warned against it, but it bears repeating that scrolling on social media late at night isn't a bedtime story that'll lull you to sleep expertly.

"Blue light from all electronics and screens inhibits our brain’s natural production of melatonin, the sleepy hormone that needs darkness to work," says Dr. Harris. It's also a very good argument for using a red night light if you, like me, are afraid of the dark.

"Go old school and read a book, magazine, do a jigsaw puzzle," she continues. "Find something calm and relaxing to do in dim light so your brain isn’t essentially staring straight at the sun which is how our brain reacts to electronics before bed."

There you have it, person-reading-this-on-their-phone-in-bed-at-3-a.m.! Toss that device, get out of bed, and don't come back until you're feeling drowsy.

If you're one to hit the fridge before bed, here's the case for why cherries should be your go-to midnight snack. And if all else fails, maybe spooning with a sleep robot will help you rest better.

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