What to Do When You Can’t Sleep

Sleep is simply part of being human – we all need it to repair our bodies and our minds; but most people will struggle to either fall or stay asleep at some point in their lives – myself included.

But before we get into what you can do about this, I think it’s important to know what’s happening to your brain when you sleep.

The Sleep Cycle 

The human sleep cycle is comprised of five stages that can be split into three categories of light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. The first two stages comprise the “light sleep” category, while the next two stages account for “deep sleep,” with the final stage being REM sleep.

NREM Stage 1

NREM stands for non rapid eye movement.

Stage 1 NREM typically takes place 1-10 minutes after you’ve closed your eyes and is the first part of light sleep. During NREM your breathing and heart rate slow down, but you can still move your muscles. If you’ve ever tried falling asleep then suddenly felt like you were falling and jerked awake (that’s called a hypnic jerk by the way,) you’re in NREM sleep.

NREM Stage 2

Stage 2 of NREM sleep usually lasts about 20 minutes. During this second stage of light sleep it’s harder to wake you up, your muscles are relaxing, and you’re starting to emit larger brain waves. (If you’re wondering, you have 5 different brain wave frequencies: Gamma- fastest, Beta, Alpha, Theta, and Delta – slowest.)

Interestingly enough, you spend more time in Stage 2 NREM than any other sleep stage.

NREM Stage 3 and 4

Stage 3 and 4 of NREM sleep are very similar and are essentially a progression into deeper and deeper sleep; they take place about 30-45 minutes after you’ve fallen asleep. During these stages your brain waves are continuing to slow down and increase in size, and you are likely to sleep through any noises or movements that might wake you in a lighter sleep stage.

REM Stage 4

As you may have guessed from NREM, REM stands for rapid eye movement.

This is the final stage of your sleep cycle and usually happens after you’ve been asleep for about 90 minutes. This is also where dreams come in. REM sleep typically lasts around 10 minutes at the start of the night, but increases in time the longer you’re asleep; the final REM stage can last about an hour.

Brain waves emitted during REM sleep are a bit unusual in that they are similar to those emitted when you’re awake, but despite the increased brain activity most of your muscles remain paralyzed.

And now you have a brief overview of what your brain is doing while you sleep.

So, what can you do when you can’t sleep?

1. Create a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. (Rough news, I know…)

It’s important to create consistency for your circadian rhythm, which is basically an internal biological clock that dictates when you feel tired or awake, and controls things like hormone release, eating habits, digestion, body temperature, and more.

If you disrupt your circadian rhythm by staying up too late or sleeping in, you’re likely to feel disoriented and have difficulty concentrating. There’s also significant research on circadian rhythm misalignment and increased risk for various diseases.

However, when you wake up at the same time every day,  your circadian rhythm will stabilize making it easier for you to fall asleep at the same time each night and helping you stay healthy.

2. Don’t Use Your Bed During the Day

Unless you’re taking a nap of course.

A quick word here about naps: the average person’s sleep cycle is 90 minutes. As stated above, after 30 minutes your brain waves start to slow down, so if you wake up 30-60 minutes after you fall asleep, you’ll feel groggy. Aim to nap for either 10-20 minutes or a full 90 minutes to avoid this.

Anyway, don’t read, eat, or watch TV in bed; the goal is to train your brain that your bed is just for sleeping.

3. Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol

Caffeine can create difficulty falling asleep, and both caffeine and alcohol interfere with your circadian rhythm making it difficult to achieve deep sleep.

Deep sleep is crucial for processes like physical renewal and hormone regulation, and if you don’t get enough deep sleep you’re more likely to get sick, feel depressed, and gain weight.

Caffeine in particular can cause sleep disruptions even 6 hours after your last consumption, so keep that in mind when you’re considering afternoon coffee.

4. Keep Things Dark, Cool, and Comfortable

Blue wavelengths like those emitted from your phone, TV, and computer suppress melatonin production more than any other type of light. This can disrupt your circadian rhythm and make you fall asleep later, so avoid looking at screens at least 30 to 60 minutes before you go to bed.

You should also keep your room at a relatively cool temperature, with the ideal temperature for sleep being between 60 and 67 degrees. In order to initiate sleep your body temperature has to drop a degree or two, and keeping your bedroom cool should help with this process.

5. Listen to White Noise

White noise by definition is a consistent noise that comes out evenly across all frequencies.

White noise can block out sudden sounds in the night that might disrupt sleep in the lighter sleep stages, and it can also make it easier to tune out distracting thoughts that might be keeping you awake. I personally like to listen to rain sounds and use the Relax Yoga Music App; it has a timer that I like to set for 30 minutes to an hour, just enough time for my body to reach the deeper stages of sleep.

Still can’t sleep?

If You’re Calm but Awake

If you’re having trouble falling asleep but you feel relatively calm, get out of bed and go to a different room; don’t lay in bed stressing about how you can’t sleep. Read a book or do something like writing, listening to music, or take a warm bath; something that’s soothing but won’t wake you up further.

Once you start to feel tired, get back in bed and try going to sleep.

If You’re Anxious and Awake

On the other hand, if you can’t sleep because you’re worried or anxious, there are a few things you can try.

1. Get out of bed, splash your face with cold water, then get back in bed and do deep breathing.

2. In DBT they teach what’s called the 9-0 meditation practice which is done like this: breathe in deeply, and when you exhale say 9 in your mind. Then on the next exhale say 8, then 7, and so on until you reach 0. Start over again at 9 and keep counting until you fall asleep.

3. Try to remind yourself that middle of the night worries are just worries, and in the morning you may think and feel differently. For me it helps to write my worries down; I often worry about what I’m worried about, and writing it all down helps get it out of my mind.

4. Lastly, you can distract yourself by listening to public radio like NPR or BBC at a low volume. Public radio is suggested because there isn’t much fluctuation in volume or vocal tone, similar to white noise.

If You Wake Up in the Middle of the Night 

If you, like me, struggle with staying asleep in addition to falling asleep, my best advice is to not check the time when you wake up.

For me, when I look at the time, I immediately wake myself up even more by trying to process what my clock says and figure out how long I have left to sleep.

When I wake up in the middle of the night and check the time and see that it’s between 12 and 2 am, I get discouraged that I’m not getting deep sleep. And if it’s past 4 am when I look, I start feeling anxious about not having enough time to fall back asleep before I need to get up for work.

If I don’t check the time, however, and simply acknowledge that I’m briefly awake (most likely because my body has just completed a sleep cycle and I’ve drifted into lighter brain waves,) it’s much easier for me to simply roll over and fall back to sleep.


And there you have the basics of the sleep advice I’ve learned through research, therapy, and personal trial and error. I hope you’ve found this helpful and can use some or all of this to help get better sleep!

One thought on “What to Do When You Can’t Sleep

  1. THIS is VERY helpful! For me, it answers some of my questions about having trouble “staying” asleep through the night…a problem for senior citizens! Thank you for the concise and informative information. I will begin putting some of these into practice. FYI: My favorite white noise is rain too!


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