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Too Stressed to Sleep? 15 Science-Backed Ways to Relax

When you feel too stressed to sleep, try doing a brain dump or breathing exercise while in bed and exercising and improving your sleep hygiene during the day.
Published
2023-11-17
Updated
2023-12-22
16 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Man lying awake too stressed to sleep

What to Do When You Feel Too Stressed to Sleep? 

  • When you’re lying awake feeling stressed, try doing a breathing exercise, a brain dump, or getting out of bed to do a sleep reset.
  • During the day, exercise and improve your sleep hygiene to have an easier time falling and staying asleep.
  • The RISE app can guide you through breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and 20+ scientifically-proven sleep hygiene habits to help you get a good night’s sleep, even when stressed. The app also helps you catch up on any stress-induced sleep loss.

You’re lying in bed worrying about tomorrow’s pitch meeting, last night’s argument, and how you should be asleep right now. Sound familiar? 

If you’re too stressed to sleep, you’re not alone. RISE users say stress and anxiety are the biggest factors getting in the way of a good night’s sleep. 

Luckily, there are science-backed ways to relax and drift off. We’ve rounded up what RISE users do to destress and sleep soundly and how you can use the RISE app to do the same.

A Sleep Doctor's Advice

A Sleep Doctor's Advice

Before we dive into what RISE users do when too stressed to sleep, we asked Dr. Chester Wufor his advice. Dr. Wu is double board certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and is one of our sleep advisors.

“If you’re feeling stressed, take time to fully unwind before bed with a cup of chamomile tea, a warm shower or bath, or a good book. A breathing exercise can also give you something to focus on if your mind is racing. And when possible, catch up on any sleep loss with an early night or afternoon nap. This’ll help you feel your best and manage future stress better.”

How to Sleep if You Feel Stressed Before Bed? 

1. Do a Breathing Exercise 

Breathing exercises can lower your heart rate and blood pressure and promote your parasympathetic nervous system (“rest-and-digest mode” as opposed to “fight or flight”). They also give you something to focus on when stressful thoughts take over. 

Try: 

  • Diaphragmatic breathing: A 2021 study found diaphragmatic breathing helped lower anxiety and shorten sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep) in nurses during the COVID-19 outbreak. 
  • 4-7-8 breathing: A 2022 study found 4-7-8 breathing lowered stress and anxiety in people who just had bariatric surgery. 
  • Psychological sighing: A 2023 study — co-authored by our scientific advisor and Co-Director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences at Stanford University Dr. Jamie Zeitzer — found five minutes of psychological sighing can improve your mood, reduce breathing rate, and help manage stress levels.

Learn how to do these breathing exercises here. 

RISE can walk you through exercises like diaphragmatic breathing in the app. 

Already a RISE user? Access your deep breathing audio guide here (iOS 1.202 and above). 

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2. Practice Relaxation Techniques 

Relaxation exercises can also trigger your parasympathetic nervous system to help you relax enough to drift off. 

For example, a 2021 study on progressive muscle relaxation — where you tense and relax one muscle group at a time — found 20 minutes of the exercise increased participants’ state of relaxation (as did guided imagery and deep breathing). 

Learn more relaxation techniques for sleep here. 

Check out RISE’s audio guide on progressive muscle relaxation as well as autogenic training, another relaxing, sleep-promoting exercise.

RISE app screenshot showing you when to relax
The RISE app has audio guides on breathing and relaxation exercises.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started here.

3. Do a Brain Dump 

Get stressful thoughts out of your head and onto the page. You could journal about a particular stressor or make your to-do list for tomorrow. 

Research shows writing a to-do list can help you fall asleep faster than writing about tasks you’ve already done. 

If you do a brain dump in RISE, the app can remind you of what you’ve written the next day.  

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their Brain Dump Habit notification.

4. Develop a Relaxing Bedtime Routine 

Spend an hour or so — or even longer if you’re particularly stressed — relaxing before bed. This will give you some buffer time between a stressful day and sleep.

Doing activities you enjoy can help you form positive associations with sleep and it can provide a distraction from stressful thoughts.

Your routine could include: 

  • Reading
  • Listening to calming music 
  • Journaling 
  • Taking a warm shower or bath (this can also help your body temperature drop, which promotes sleep)

Make sure to dim the lights when you do your bedtime routine to help prepare your body for sleep.  

What do sleep experts do? Co-founder and CEO of Rise Science Jeff Kahn takes a warm bath 90 minutes before bed to relax and cool down, and our science advisor Dr. Jamie Zeitzer unwinds with the New York Times crossword. 

Learn how to craft the perfect bedtime routine for adults here. 

RISE can give you a gentle nudge when it’s time to wind down, another feature users love. 

“I struggle with depression, anxiety, and PTSD and sleep is a big factor in helping me manage my mental health, yet it was something I always struggled with,” said one RISE user. “It allows me to build sleeping habits such as reminding me what time not to drink coffee and when I need to start my wind down for sleep.” Read the review

Heads-up: A relaxing bedtime routine can be particularly useful if you’ve got a high-stress job and you’re battling burnout. Research shows mentally disconnecting from work before bed when you’re off the clock can help reduce mental strain.

You can learn more about how to prevent burnout here.

5. Use Screens Wisely 

Turn off electronic devices about an hour or so before bed. 

Love your screen time? Make sure you use technology wisely before bed. 

Choose relaxing content, like a sitcom you’ve seen before so plot twists don’t stress you out, or episodic shows (where the story is told within one episode) to avoid cliffhangers.

Excitement can cause cognitive arousal, which your body mistakes for stress, keeping you up. 

Also, avoid any screen time that could add to your stress levels, like checking work email, playing video games, or scrolling through news stories. 

And, as one user says, social media probably won’t help, either. “I was laying in bed from 10 p.m. until midnight on social media to relax myself to get to sleep. Hours wasted pointlessly and only getting four hours or so a night of sleep. I downloaded this app a few days ago and already feel better.” Read the review.

Multitasking on screens can also be too stimulating. A 2022 study found when media use an hour before bed didn’t involve multitasking and took place in bed it was linked to more sleep time. 

And if you’ve had a stressful day, watch out for revenge bedtime procrastination, when you stay up late to get some me-time. Set a bedtime alarm if this happens to you and make time for enjoyable self-care activities in your bedtime routine. 

RISE users say the key to breaking the habit is seeing how much revenge bedtime procrastination impacts their sleep and energy levels.

“Using RISE has really given me motivation to avoid revenge bedtime procrastination. With three young kids, it is easy to stay up too late just to enjoy the quiet. But seeing what it was doing to my sleep debt I finally felt it just really wasn’t worth it anymore.” Read the review

Heads-up: Sleep debt is how much sleep you’ve missed out on recently. More on that soon.

We’ve covered more on how to use screens before bed here.

6. Avoid Alcohol 

Alcohol may help you feel relaxed and sleepy, but it can act as a stimulant in low doses and shortly after consuming it. 

It can also cause you to wake up in the middle of the night, leading to a restless night’s sleep. And if you’re stressed, you might struggle to drift back off when alcohol wakes you up.

Learn more on how alcohol affects your sleep here. 

If you drink, avoid alcohol three to four hours before bed. RISE can give you an exact time based on your body clock each day. 

RISE app screenshot showing when to have your last alcoholic drink
The RISE app can tell you when to stop drinking each evening.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their avoid late alcohol reminder here. 

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7. Avoid Sleep Aids 

It’s tempting to reach for an over-the-counter sleep aid when you’ve got stress-induced insomnia. But they come with plenty of risks and ugly side effects, and they can cause more sleep problems — like rebound insomnia — when you stop taking them. 

Cannabis and CBD may help you relax at first, but more research is needed to confirm if they can improve your sleep. Current studies have mixed results. 

Finally, melatonin may not be as effective at helping you sleep as you think and it can come with nightmares or vivid dreams as side effects — not great when you’re already stressed. 

If you rely on it, learn why you can’t sleep without melatonin here. 

What to Do During the Day to Reduce Stress for Better Sleep? 

8. Workout (But Not Within an Hour of Bedtime) 

Exercise can help with stress management. Research shows low-to-moderate-intensity exercise can improve mood, anxiety, and depression, and working out can also help you sleep later that night. 

Get out in nature to make exercise even more of a stress reliever. Spending time in nature can decrease stress and improve your mood

Expert tip: Schedule your workout for earlier in the day. Vigorous exercise within an hour of bedtime can spike cortisol (the stress hormone) and keep you awake. If you want to move before bed, opt for yoga or some stretches.

We’ve covered the best time to work out here, and RISE can tell you when it’s best to do gentle physical activity over a heart-thumping workout. 

9. Improve Your Sleep Hygiene 

Sleep hygiene is the name for the habits that help you sleep.

If you’ve got poor sleep hygiene, you may take longer to fall asleep and wake up more often in the night. All this time lying awake in bed can leave you ruminating (going over the same thoughts again and again) on whatever you’re stressed about. Hello, more sleep deprivation. 

Here’s how to improve sleep hygiene: 

  • Get out in sunlight first thing 
  • Spend as much time in daylight as you can during the day
  • Dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses about 90 minutes before bed
  • Avoid large meals, alcohol, caffeine, and intense exercise close to bedtime
  • Avoid long naps and naps too close to bedtime
  • Make your sleep environment cool, dark, and quiet to avoid sleep disturbances and make it feel like a calm safe space 

Don’t stress about remembering all of these points. RISE can send you helpful reminders with an exact time to do 20+ healthy sleep habits daily. 

On the app, you can see how these habits affect your sleep and energy. Users say this helps them make the changes needed to get more sleep.

“Just being able to visually see how my sleep habit choices are affecting my energy levels seems to have done the ticket for getting me to catch up on sleep.” Read the review

RISE app screenshot showing your sleep hygiene reminders
The RISE app can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene behaviors.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications here

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10. Stay in Sync With Your Circadian Rhythm 

Your circadian rhythm is your 24-hour body clock. When you’re in sync, you’ll have an easier time falling asleep and lower odds of mental and physical health issues, including anxiety and depression

Get in sync by: 

  • Keeping a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends
  • Going to sleep during your Melatonin Window (check RISE for when this is — it’s what we call the roughly one-hour window when your body’s rate of melatonin production is at its highest — this is your sleep hormone) 
  • Eat meals during the day (i.e. avoid stress-eating at night) and at roughly the same times

RISE takes the stress out of figuring out the best time to sleep and wake up. The app predicts the timing of your circadian rhythm each day and shows you when your body naturally wants to sleep and wake up.  

RISE users say this can help if you rely on sleep aids to drift off. 

“If I go to sleep according to my schedule, within my Melatonin Window, I am guaranteed to satisfy my sleep needs. Without any additional sleep aids, supplements, or medications.” Read the review

11. Lower Your Sleep Debt

Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you’ve missed out on. If stress is causing trouble sleeping, your sleep debt may be high. Unfortunately, sleep loss can make us more sensitive to stress, creating a vicious circle. 

When possible, lower your sleep debt by: 

  • Heading to bed a little earlier
  • Sleeping in a little later
  • Taking short afternoon naps 
  • Improving your sleep hygiene so you spend more time in bed asleep

If you’re plagued with sleepless nights when stressed, try lowering your sleep debt when a stressful situation has passed — such as when a big work project is over or house purchase finalized. 

Lowering your sleep debt can help you better manage stressful emotions and reduce the brain fog and mental exhaustion that often come with chronic stress. Getting enough sleep can even help reduce the Sunday scaries, a type of anticipatory anxiety that can leave you too stressed to sleep each Sunday.

If you stress about time spent in different sleep stages or getting a perfect recovery score on your sleep tracker (known as orthosomnia), sleep debt is a better metric to focus on. There’s just one number to think about and we measure it over 14 nights, so one restless night won’t make or break your sleep or health.

Plus, low sleep debt is key to boosting your energy, health, and well-being. Check RISE to see how much you have. 

“Before seeing the sleep debt numbers, I didn’t understand how exhausted I really was. The biggest difference was when I finally reduced it to 0. It was a journey of several months, but I felt years younger after.” Read the review

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can calculate how much sleep debt you have.

Heads-up: Sleep debt is compared to your sleep need, or how much sleep you need a night. This number is determined by genetics and unique for everyone. 

Knowing how much sleep you uniquely need is vital for getting enough shut-eye and keeping stress at bay. 

It varies more than you’d think. Among 1.95 million RISE users aged 24 and up, the hours of sleep needed ranged from five to 11 hours 30 minutes. 

The RISE app can tell you how much sleep you need.
The RISE app can work out your sleep need.

Learn how to function on no sleep here to keep you going while you catch up on shut-eye.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click view their sleep need here and view their sleep debt here.

12. Get Help From Friends, a Therapist, or a Healthcare Provider 

Sometimes you need to make a big change to reduce stress like cutting back at work, hiring more childcare, or reaching out to friends, a therapist, or your doctor for support. 

Don’t be embarrassed if stress easily keeps you up. It may be down to your sleep reactivity. The higher your sleep reactivity, the more stress is likely to disrupt your sleep and cause insomnia. 

A few nights awake with stress may not seem like a big deal, but the problem can snowball. 

Research shows once you’ve been exposed to stress and developed insomnia, your sleep reactivity can increase and it may not return to pre-insomnia levels. So you want to do everything you can to avoid chronic stress. 

Speak to a healthcare provider if you’re suffering from a mental health issue like an anxiety disorder or depression, or a sleep expert if a sleep disorder like chronic insomnia or sleep apnea is behind your lack of sleep.

A doctor can recommend treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) which can break the perpetuating cycle of stress before or about sleep. If you find yourself ruminating in bed, there’s rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (RFCBT), a form of therapy that helps control rumination with methods like distraction. 

What to Do if You Wake Up in the Night Stressed? 

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13. Don’t Panic 

It’s easier said than done, but panicking about stress keeping you up can spike your cortisol levels and make it harder to fall back asleep

Avoid checking the time to see how long you’ve got before your alarm clock rings and avoid checking your phone for any notifications. 

Now’s a great time to try to control your stress response with a breathing or relaxation exercise. 

14. Do a Sleep Reset 

If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, it’s time for a sleep reset. Get out of bed and do a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy. 

Try: 

  • Reading
  • Meditating 
  • Folding laundry 
  • Organizing a drawer 

You can also try doing a yoga nidra session (also known as NSDR), which is a self-directed relaxation technique. It’s not designed to put you to sleep, but it could help you relax.

The more effort you put into sleep, the harder it can be to get, so only get back into bed when you feel sleepy and don’t rush your body. Try to enjoy the bonus me-time instead and trust that sleep will come. 

Doing a sleep reset can help break the cycle of conditioned arousal. This is when your brain associates your bed and sleep with wakefulness. You might be at risk of this if you regularly find yourself feeling stressed at night or if you worry about stress keeping you up before you even get into bed.

RISE will send you a silent reminder to do a sleep reset if you reach for your phone in the night. The app can gently guide you through the steps.

15. Keep the Lights Low 

If you get up to use the bathroom or do a sleep reset, avoid switching on bright overhead lighting. Keep it as dark as possible so you don’t disrupt your melatonin production and wake yourself up further. We recommend using a red light night light. 

We’ve covered what to do if you wake up in the middle of the night here. 

You can also learn how to sleep with anxiety here, including why anxiety often spikes before bed.

Destress and Drift Off 

Stress can leave you tossing and turning all night. To help, try experimenting with a few of the science-backed methods above that have helped RISE users sleep when stressed out.

And turn to RISE to take the stress out of getting a good night’s sleep. The app guides you through relaxation and breathing exercises and sends you helpful reminders when it’s time to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day.

Plus, RISE predicts your circadian rhythm, so you can sync up, and works out how much sleep debt you have, so you can lower it. These two things will help you get more energy and handle stress better than ever. 

It works fast, too. A whopping 80% of RISE users say they sleep better within five days of using the app. 

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Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

Rise Science is backed by True Ventures, Freestyle Capital, and High Alpha; investors behind category winners Fitbit, Peloton, and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

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