Why can’t I shut my brain off at night?
We’ve all had nights when we lie awake in bed, unable to quiet our racing thoughts. There are plenty of reasons why sleep may be evading you—maybe you had caffeine too late in the afternoon, for example, or you’ve been staring at your laptop screen for hours and haven’t given yourself time to wind down before bed.
These are things to keep in mind for improving future nights of sleep, of course. But what if it’s too late to make those changes tonight, and you’re already paying the wide-awake consequences? Or what if you’ve done everything “right” leading up to bedtime, and you still find yourself tossing and turning?
“It’s very common for people to report being physically tired, but not being able to shut their mind off, especially if they’re very excited or worried about something,” says James Findley, clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
It can be difficult to quiet those racing thoughts, says Findley, but there are some tricks that may help your brain override rumination so you can drift off to sleep. Here are a few to try next time insomnia strikes.
Make a to-do list
“Worries keep people awake, and they don’t have to be negative worries,” says Findley. “It could also be something positive you’re planning, like a trip or a big event with a lot of things you have to remember.” Spending time during the day or earlier in the evening to sit and address those concerns may help, he says—but if it’s too late for that, grab a notebook and try physically writing them down in a list for the next day.
A recent study found that writing out a to-do list of future tasks helped people fall asleep nine minutes faster than people who wrote about tasks they’d already accomplished that day. (The longer and more detailed the participants’ lists, the faster they fell asleep.) It may seem counterintuitive that focusing on tomorrow’s responsibilities would lead to faster sleep, but researchers think the act of getting them down on paper helps clear the mind and stop rumination, at least temporarily.
Get out of bed
Staying in bed and trying to make yourself fall asleep is a bad idea, says Dr. Cormac O’Donovan, associate professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, because it may train your brain to associate your bed and your bedroom with insomnia and worries—which will only make the problem worse over time. Instead, if you lie awake for more than 20 to 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something else.
“If you’re trying to sleep and your brain’s not letting you, it could just be that you’re going to bed too early,” says O’Donovan. Conventional wisdom may tell you that you need eight hours of sleep, “but everyone is different, and some people’s bodies only demand six or seven,” he says. Staying up until you’re truly tired can help you find a sleep pattern that works best for you, as long as you can still wake up in the morning without a problem.
Read a book—but nothing too exciting
“You can’t stop your brain from thinking, but you can distract it by focusing on something neutral,” says Findley. Since digital screens can further disrupt sleep, he recommends analog distractions whenever possible—like reading a physical book.
“It can help to read something that will get your mind off of whatever you’re worried about, but it should be something that’s not too stimulating and won’t get you worked up about something else,” he says. If getting to sleep isn’t usually a big problem for you, reading in bed for 20 to 30 minutes is fine, he adds. But if you’re still awake after that, get out of bed and read somewhere else until you feel ready to sleep.
Listen to a podcast
Podcasts or audiobooks can take your mind off your worries as well, and they can be good alternatives to reading if you don’t want to turn on a light or strain your tired eyes. You can use headphones to listen without disturbing your bed partner too.
The rules for podcasts and audiobooks remain the same as for books though. Find a topic that’s not too exciting or upsetting (lay off the heated political debates and murder mysteries, for example), and get out of bed and listen elsewhere—on a living-room couch, for example—if you don’t drift off in bed right away.
Or try soothing sounds
“There’s not a lot of good research on sound therapy, but it may be worth a try for some people,” says O’Donovan. “I’ve had some patients tell me they used to live on the beach, and now that they live in the big city they miss the sound of the ocean putting them to sleep.”
Download an app or consider buying a white noise machine to make those sounds you miss or love, he says. “They might help create an environment that’s more conducive to sleep.” They may even trigger memories of more relaxing times, and help take your mind off of whatever’s worrying you in the moment.
Focus on your breathing
Another way to quiet your thoughts can be through simple breathing exercises. “Your mind is surely going to wander back to other things, but the important thing is to keep bringing it back to your breathing, in and out,” says O’Donovan. Deep, slow breathing can also slow your heart rate, which can be helpful if you’re anxious or worked up about something specific.
You can do diaphragmatic breathing while lying in bed, without turning on a light or disturbing your partner. Try this technique from sleep specialist Michael Breus: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Inhale through your nose for about two seconds, feeling your belly expand, then push gently on your belly as you slowly exhale. Repeat.
Try a guided meditation
Meditation and guided imagery can also help some people fall asleep. “The idea again is to focus your thoughts on something other than the things you’re worried about,” says Findley. You might zero in on your breathing, for example, or imagine yourself walking on the beach or floating on a cloud.
The more you practice meditation and guided imagery, the more effective it will become, says Findley. “You can use apps or YouTube videos to get started, but I would suggest first practicing them during the day,” he says. “If it becomes something you only do when you can’t sleep, it can be counterproductive.”
Eat a light carbohydrate snack
Having a large meal or a heavy snack before bed can slow down digestion and mess with your sleep, and having too much refined sugar too close to bedtime can definitely keep you awake. But getting up and having a light carbohydrate snack when you can’t sleep—a small serving of popcorn or whole-grain crackers, for example—may be helpful.
“Carbohydrates can promote the production of serotonin, which the brain needs to regulate sleep,” says Findley. If it’s been hours since you ate dinner, having a small snack may also keep your mind off of your empty stomach.
Download a science-based smartphone app
Turning to your smartphone may not be a sleep doctor’s first recommendation for dozing off faster, especially because the blue light the screen emits can make sleep problems even worse. But smartphones can offer useful tools for people who can’t quiet their racing thoughts on their own—including a slew of apps designed to play soothing sounds, guided meditations, or calming bedtime stories for that very purpose.
Most smartphone apps haven’t been vetted with scientific research. The mySleepButton app, available with a free trial on the App Store and Google Play, is one exception: It uses cognitive science to “shuffle” users’ thoughts (by suggesting random and unrelated words and images) so they fall asleep easier.
When to talk to your doctor about racing thoughts
Everyone has a sleepless night once in a while, but if you find that your thoughts are keeping you up on a regular basis, it’s time to talk to your doctor. A medical professional can help you evaluate whether any current medications or lifestyle habits are contributing to your insomnia and can also offer some solutions.
Your doctor may also recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions, in which a mental-health professional can help you identify and overcome issues that might be interfering with your shuteye. “We have people monitor their sleep with a sleep diary, and we use that to make recommendations,” Findley explains.
Sleep medications—either over-the-counter or prescription—are not recommended as a first-line treatment, and they’re not meant to be taken long-term. Doctors may suggest them to help patients get through particularly stressful times, says Findley, but lifestyle remedies and CBT for insomnia should always be tried first.