It’s the middle of the night and there you are, staring at the ceiling while the clock’s ticking away. You start getting anxious, because there are only a few hours of potential sleep left until a new day starts again. But as much as you toss and turn, you just can’t fall asleep.
If you suffer from insomnia, always check if you have your bedtime basics covered: a dark, slightly cool bedroom with a comfortable mattress, not too much caffeine and alcohol before bedtime. You could even try some more unconventional tips for getting plenty of shut-eye.
But some nights, even when you’ve done everything right, you find yourself wide awake at 2am.
So what do you do? It’s tempting to grab your phone, check your social media feeds or watch TV until you start getting sleepy. But that’s not a great choice for two reasons. The blue light coming from electronic devices actually inhibits the secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin, making it even harder for you to fall asleep. What’s more, by doing something mentally stimulating, not only are you not sleeping, you’re not getting high-quality rest either.
There must be a better way right?
13 Helpful Things to Do When You Can’t Sleep at Night
When you can’t fall asleep, you have two different options: staying in bed to rest up as much as you can, or break the cycle by getting up.
Staying in Bed
Ok, so you’re wide awake and it doesn’t look like sleep is gonna come anytime soon. When you’re chronically ill or have limited mobility, getting out of bed might be too tiring or painful. So how do you keep the restlessness and racing thoughts away and make the most of this sleepless situation?
The first thing to do is change your mindset: focus on getting plenty of real rest instead of sleep. There are a number of ways for your body and mind to recharge without falling asleep:
- Make sure you’re in a comfortable position. That’s tricky when painsomnia is keeping you up. You could lie in savasana or place a pillow between your legs if you sleep on your side. Try to relax your muscles as much as possible.
- Breathe easy. Deep belly breathing calms your nervous system, which is pretty essential for falling asleep. One technique specifically, the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, has been called a ‘natural tranquilizer’ that can help you nod off at night. Simply inhale through your nose to a count of 4, hold your breath for 7 counts and exhale through your mouth on the count of 8.
- Relax your body from head to toe with a Mindful Body Scan. Turn your attention inwards and focus on the sensations in your body, starting at your feet and working your way upwards. Whenever you notice tension or tightness, try to let it go by breathing out slowly and deeply. A relaxing body scan is a great tool to relieve pain and quiet your mind.
- Practice visualization. Instead of letting worries take over your thoughts, let’s picture something more soothing. In your mind’s eye, envision a relaxing scenario – lying on the beach, walking through the forest, cozying up by the fireplace. Engage all of your senses to create a vivid image: what do you see, hear, smell, feel? If you find it hard to come up with a calming scene, try one of these visualizations for restorative sleep.
- Do a guided meditation. Meditation is one of the best ways to release stress and relax you body and mind, but it can be hard to focus when you’re sleepy. Listening to a guided meditation helps you walk through the process. You can find one you like online or download Headspace for themed meditation sessions.
- Look into Yoga Nidra. Yoga nidra is an ancient technique that claims to help you achieve a deep state of relaxation that’s as effective as sleep. It combines breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation with mindfulness, visualizations and affirmations. I haven’t tried it yet myself, but here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started.
“Dear 3 A.M. We have got to stop meeting this way. I’d much rather sleep with you. “
Some sleeping experts say it’s best to get up when you can’t sleep at night, so your brain keeps associating your bed with sleeping, not with tossing and turning. But when you hop out of bed, it’s best not to engage in stimulating activities if you still want to catch any zzz’s tonight. So what can you do?
- Set the scene. Keep the lights down low and limit your exposure to blue lit screens like your phone and iPad to a minimum. It also helps to stay comfortably warm by putting on a robe and slippers or snuggling under a blanket.
- Have a warming drink. Nothing caffeinated obviously, but warm milk and chamomile tea are classic sleep aids.
- Grab a healthy midnight snack. Going to bed with an empty stomach could ruin your sleep quality. Eat something light, preferably foods rich in sleep-promoting tryptophan and magnesium like a banana, a handful of nuts, some (soy) yoghurt or a small bowl of oatmeal.
- Give yourself a mini-massage. You could use a simple self-massage tool to ease tight muscles or gently rub the reflexology pressure points on your feet that stimulate better sleep.
- Practice a few sleep-inducing yoga poses. The combination of deep belly breathing and slow movement stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which enables you to relax. You could put your legs up against the wall, lie back over a bolster in Reclining Goddess pose or settle comfortably in Child’s pose.
- Do you keep going over your problems in your mind? Stop ruminating and write down all your concerns in a worry journal. After your brain dump, distract yourself by engaging in something interesting but relaxing for a few minutes.
- Entertain yourself with relaxing activities that don’t involve staring at a screen. Listen to audiobooks (nothing too thrilling) or soft music, preferably something without lyrics. If you like to keep your hands busy, you could pick up a hobby that you can thoughtlessly do, like knitting or coloring. The key is to stop your activity the minute you start dozing off – yes even when there’s an enticing cliffhanger!
Which helpful things do you like to do when you can’t sleep at night?
If you enjoyed reading this article, you might also like:
- How to Get Through Your Workday When You Feel Exhausted
- Mindful Micro-Breaks: How to Recharge Yourself Within Minutes
- How to Stop Ruminating: Thinking Things Through, Distraction or Mindfulness?