Sleep Doctor Suggests 29 Things to Do When You Can’t Sleep

When you can’t sleep, try doing a sleep reset, breathing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing, or relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation.
Updated
2023-12-22
17 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
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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.

What to Do When You Can’t Sleep? 

  • The most important thing to do when you can’t sleep is to stay calm. Try breathing exercises, like diaphragmatic breathing, or relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation. 
  • If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes of trying, don’t force it. Do a sleep reset. Get out of bed and do a relaxing activity, like reading, with the lights low. 
  • To fall asleep more easily the next night (and future nights) improve your sleep hygiene. The RISE app can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day.

It’s easy to spiral when you can’t sleep. You check the time, scroll on social media for some comfort, and start worrying about how low on energy you’re going to be the next day. 

But these are the exact things you shouldn’t do when you can’t sleep. They’ll only make it harder to drift off. 

Below, we’ll dive into the common reasons you can't sleep and what you can do to fix each one. Plus, we’ll cover how the RISE app can help you build the habits that are key to falling asleep easily.

Advice from a sleep doctor:

According to our sleep advisor and medical reviewer, Dr. Chester Wu, it’s crucial to stay relaxed if you find yourself awake with insomnia.

“Try not to panic, look at the time, or let anxiety add to your sleeplessness. Instead, try focusing on breathing exercises that can relax you and provide a distraction.”

Here’s what might be keeping you awake and what you can do to fall asleep.

1. Ill-Timed Light Exposure 

RISE app screenshot showing when to get and avoid bright light
The RISE app can tell you when to get and avoid light.

Your daytime behaviors affect how well you sleep at night. And the timing of your light exposure is a key behavior to be aware of. 

Light is a powerful signal to your circadian rhythm. This is your roughly 24-hour body clock, which controls your sleep cycle. 

When you get light in the morning, it tells your body it’s time to be awake and alert, setting you up to feel sleep that evening. When you get light in the evening, however, it suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin and keeps you awake later. 

The fix: 

  • Get at least 10 minutes of bright light as soon as possible after waking up. Make that 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window. 
  • Get light throughout the day, as this makes you less sensitive to light in the evening. The more light you get, the less sensitive you’ll be. 
  • About 90 minutes before bed, dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses (we recommend these).

For exact timings, RISE can tell when to get and avoid light each day. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their get bright light reminder.

2. It’s Too Noisy 

Whether it’s a snoring partner or a noisy neighbor, noise at night can make it hard to sleep. 

Silence seems to be best. But if that’s not possible, sleep sounds can help to drown out disturbing noises. A 2021 study found when people in New York City slept with a white noise machine they fell asleep faster and woke up less often during the night. 

The fix: Try to keep your sleep environment below 35 decibels, which is about the sound of a whisper. 

Wear earplugs, use a white noise machine, or listen to RISE’s in-app sleep sounds, which include white noise, nature sounds, and ambient music. 

3. It’s Too Hot 

You need a natural drop in core body temperature to fall asleep. If you’re too hot when you sleep, or your bedroom is too warm, this can cause trouble sleeping. 

The fix: Set your thermostat to 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit or open a window. A warm shower or bath before bed can also help your body temperature drop. 

Don’t want a full bath or shower? A 2023 study found even just immersing your feet in warm water can help lower your temperature. Wearing socks to bed can help too. 

4. It’s Too Light  

You want to make your bedroom as dark as possible for sleep. This will keep your melatonin production high and tell your circadian rhythm it’s nighttime. 

The fix: Get blackout curtains and wear an eye mask.  If you need light, try a red light night light, which research shows doesn’t disrupt melatonin production as much as other wavelengths of light.

RISE can remind you to check your sleep environment each night before you crawl into bed. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their check environment habit reminder.

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5. Late Workouts 

Exercise in general is great for sleep. But exercise increases your core body temperature and elevates your cortisol levels. You probably also work out in bright light. All this adds up to having trouble falling asleep. 

On the flip side, exercising earlier in the day can help you fall asleep faster. 

We’ve covered the best time to work out here.

The fix: Exercise earlier in the day and avoid intense workouts within an hour of bedtime. RISE can tell you when it’s best to skip a workout. 

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

6. Late Alcohol Consumption 

Alcohol may cause sleepiness at first, but it fragments your sleep, meaning you may wake up during the night. It also suppressed rapid-eye-movement sleep (REM sleep) and melatonin production. 

The fix: Stop drinking alcohol three to four hours before bed. RISE can tell you when to avoid alcohol exactly. 

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

7. Late Water Intake 

Drinking water before bed can cause you to wake up needing to use the bathroom. And once you’ve gotten up, it can be hard to drift back off to sleep. 

The fix: Drink water earlier in the day and avoid fluids at least two hours before bedtime. 

8. Drinking Coffee Too Late in the Day 

RISE app screenshot showing when to limit caffeine intake
The RISE app can tell you when to stop drinking coffee each day.

Caffeine can last in your system for more than 12 hours, so while a mid-afternoon latte seems harmless, it could be stopping you from sleeping. 

The fix: Cut yourself off from caffeine around 12 hours before bed. RISE can tell you when to have your final coffee each day. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their limit caffeine reminder.

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9. Late Evening Meals 

Eating late at night can push back your circadian rhythm. And eating shortly before laying down can up your odds of digestive issues like acid reflux making it harder to drift off.

The fix: Stop eating two to three hours before bed. If you need to eat before bed, go for a light snack like fruit, nuts, or Greek yogurt. 

RISE can tell you when exactly to avoid large meals to help you plan dinner. 

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

10. Pre-Bedtime Arousal 

Whether it’s a thrilling Netflix show or a late-night work email, doing something exciting or stressful before bed can hike your cortisol levels and keep you awake.

And if it’s screen time, blue light from electronic devices like your phone and laptop might be adding to the problem. 

The fix: Do a relaxing bedtime routine about an hour before bed. Try reading, listening to calming music, or doing yoga. RISE can also guide you through relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation. 

Here’s how to do it: 

  • Start with your face, tense all your muscles for 10 seconds, and then relax them
  • Then move to your arms, tensing for 10 seconds and relaxing 
  • Continue this for every part of your body 

11. You’ve Got Anxiety 

RISE app screenshot showing relaxation sessions
The RISE app can guide you through relaxation exercises.

You might just get anxious thoughts before bed or have chronic anxiety each day, either way, your racing mind may be behind your sleep deprivation. 

The fix: Do a breathing exercise before bed. 

  • A 2021 study found diaphragmatic breathing helped reduce anxiety in nurses and helped them fall asleep faster. 
  • Research from 2022 found the 4-7-8 breathing method can help improve stress and anxiety in hospital patients after bariatric surgery. 
  • Research from 2023 (co-authored by our advisor Dr. Jamie Zeitzer, Co-Director of the Center for Sleep & Circadian Sciences at Stanford University) found psychological sighing can improve mood and anxiety. 

Here’s how to do diaphragmatic breathing: 

  • Sit in a comfortable position and place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. 
  • Breathe in deeply. You should feel the hand on your belly rise, not the hand on your chest. 
  • Continue deep breathing for 20 breaths. 

We’ve covered more tips on how to sleep with anxiety here. 

RISE can guide you through exercises like diaphragmatic breathing.

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

12. You’re Stressed About Not Sleeping 

If you’re laying in bed struggling to sleep, it’s easy to start getting anxious about the lost shut-eye and how you’ll feel when your alarm clock rings. But this stress will only make it harder to drift off. 

The fix: Do a sleep reset. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, get up and do a relaxing activity like reading or NSDR until you feel sleepy. Learn more about why you should stay up when you can't sleep here.

A sleep reset is also useful when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep.  

13. You’re Not Comfortable 

Being comfortable is crucial for sleep. And many factors go into comfort. 

For better sleep, you need to think about: 

The fix: Experiment with different sleep positions and pillow positions to find the one that’s most comfortable for you. If you wake up in pain, you might need a new mattress, too. 

14. You Napped Too Close to Bedtime 

Naps are a great way of catching up on lost sleep, but if you nap for too long, or nap too close to bedtime, you may struggle to sleep that night. 

The fix: Keep naps short (research shows 10-minute naps are effective at boosting energy). And nap during your afternoon dip in energy. RISE can tell you when this will most likely be each day. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their upcoming energy peaks and dips on the Energy screen.

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15. Rebound Insomnia from Sleep Aids 

Sleep aids may help you sleep at first, but when you stop taking them you can experience “rebound insomnia.” This is when your sleep problems are even worse than they were before you started taking sleep aids. 

The fix: Resist taking sleep aids. Double down on the other tips in this article (like getting the timing of light, caffeine, and exercise right) to help you sleep. 

16. Pets in Bed 

It feels nice to cuddle up to a pet as you sleep, but their movements, body heat, and any allergies they cause can stop you from getting enough sleep. A 2023 study found that having a cat or a dog was associated with greater odds of having a sleep disorder or trouble sleeping.

The fix: Make your pet sleep in another room, or at least out of your bed. 

17. You’re Living at Odds with Your Chronotype 

Your chronotype is whether you’re an early bird or night owl, or whether you have a natural tendency to go to sleep and wake up earlier or later. 

If, for example, you’re a night owl, you may struggle to fall asleep at an earlier time than you’re used to. 

The fix: Either embrace your chronotype (there’s nothing wrong with being a night owl!) or reset your circadian rhythm to sleep at a different time. Do this by gradually moving your sleep and wake times by 15 to 30 minutes every few days. 

18. Travel Jet Lag 

If you’ve traveled across time zones and your body is taking a while to catch up, you’ve got jet lag. This can stop you from falling asleep at an appropriate time in your new location and cause a lack of sleep overall. 

The fix: Melatonin supplements can help shift the timing of your circadian rhythm forward or back, depending on which direction you’re traveling in. 

We’ve covered more ways to get over jet lag here.

19. Social Jetlag 

Social jetlag is when you have an irregular sleep schedule. You might go to sleep and wake up at one time during the workweek, but much later on weekends. 

Come Sunday night, you may struggle to fall asleep as you’ve disrupted your circadian rhythm. 

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone — 87% of us have social jetlag.

The fix: To sleep better, keep a regular sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at roughly the same times, even on your days off. 

20. Shift Work 

When you’re living at odds with your circadian rhythm — by working at night or working rotating shifts — you may struggle to sleep when you crawl into bed, no matter how tired you are. 

The fix: Try eating meals at consistent times and during the day, even if you work nights, as this is what your body clock wants you to do. 

Be extra vigilant about light in the run-up to your bedtime — try wearing sunglasses as you travel home from work, for example. 

21. Snoring 

It’s not just your partner’s snoring that could keep you up, your own snoring can wake you up and ruin a good night’s sleep. And it may be a sign of an underlying sleep-related breathing disorder

The fix: Try sleeping on your side, or with your head elevated, and avoiding alcohol close to bedtime. For more advice, we’ve covered 16 ways to stop snoring here.

22. Obstructive Sleep Apnea 

Obstructive sleep apnea is when your airways close and your breathing is cut off during the night. This can cause you to wake up often throughout the night and you may struggle to drift back off.

The fix: Sleeping on your side or with your head elevated can help. But get tested for sleep apnea if you think you have the disorder. You may need treatment like a continuous positive airway pressure machine (CPAP).  

23. Parasomnias 

Parasomnias include sleep talking, sleepwalking, and night terrors. All three can lead to waking up during the night and perhaps not being able to relax enough to fall back asleep. 

The fix: Talk to a sleep specialist. You may need treatment like medication or scheduled wakings. Improving your sleep hygiene (by following the tips in this article) can also help. 

24. Insomnia 

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder. You might have: 

  • Sleep onset insomnia — when you have trouble falling asleep. 
  • Sleep maintenance insomnia — when you struggle to stay asleep.
  • Early morning awakening insomnia — when you wake up too early.
  • Mixed insomnia — when you’ve got a combination of the above. 

You may also get COVID insomnia or insomnia before your period

The fix: Try all of the tips in this article to help you sleep. If this doesn’t help, speak to a sleep specialist who may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which is often the first-line treatment for insomnia. 

25. Restless Leg Syndrome 

Restless leg syndrome is a brain disorder that causes an uncontrollable urge to move your legs. You might get uncomfortable sensations in your legs that get worse in the evening or at night. 

The fix: Speak to a sleep specialist. They may recommend foot massages, yoga, or medication.  

26. Depression 

Depression doesn’t just make your days hard. It can stop you from sleeping, too. 

And research shows it’s a vicious cycle. Depression can cause sleep problems, but sleep problems can worsen depression. 

To make matters worse, treatments like antidepressants can also lead to sleep problems.

The fix: Talk to a doctor about mental health worries. Pulling an all-nighter is an interesting remedy (although it should only be done with guidance from a professional). And CBT-I is another promising treatment. 

27. You’re on Your Period (or it’s Coming Up Soon) 

Fluctuating hormones, heightened body temperature, poor mood, and pain can all make it hard to sleep on, or before, your period.

The fix: Be extra vigilant about keeping your bedroom cool and comfortable. We’ve covered how to sleep on your period here.

28. You’re Going Through Menopause 

Menopause and perimenopause (the time before menopause) come with fluctuating hormones, symptoms like hot flashes and needing to use the bathroom more, and sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea. 

The fix: Estrogen therapy has been shown to treat hot flashes and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and how often you wake up in the night. 

We’ve covered more ways to treat menopause sleep problems here. 

29. You’re Pregnant 

Pregnancy symptoms like nausea, being uncomfortable (especially in the later stages of pregnancy), and general anxiety around the new arrival can cause sleepless nights. 

The fix: Experiment with different sleep positions and body pillows, and prioritize a bedtime routine to ensure you’re calm and cool before bed. 

We’ve covered more ways to sleep when pregnant here, including sleep tips for every trimester. 

There Are Things You Can Do to Fall Asleep 

It’s all too easy to lay awake getting more and more anxious, and more and more sleep deprived. But there are things you can do when you can’t sleep. 

When you’re laying in bed, try breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, or a sleep reset. To fall asleep easier the next night (and every night), focus on sleep hygiene.

Sleep hygiene is the name for the daily behaviors you can do to fall and stay asleep more easily. 

With good sleep hygiene, you’ll be protecting yourself from many of the common causes of insomnia (like late caffeine or ill-timed light exposure), and you’ll be giving yourself the best chance of falling asleep, no matter what’s keeping you up. 

There’s a lot that goes into sleep hygiene, and this is where the RISE app can help. RISE can guide you through 20+ sleep habits and tell you the exact time to do each one to make them more effective. 

You may be sleeping soundly sooner than you think — 80% of RISE users feel the benefits within five days. 

Summary FAQs

What to do when you can’t sleep

When you can’t sleep, try breathing exercises, like diaphragmatic breathing, or relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation. If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes of trying, get out of bed and do something relaxing, like reading, until you feel sleepy again.

What to do when you can’t sleep from stress

When you can’t sleep from stress, try breathing exercises, like diaphragmatic breathing, or relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation. Journaling, exercise, and a relaxing bedtime routine can also help ease stress.

What to do when you can’t sleep and are bored at night

When you can’t sleep and you are bored at night, try doing a breathing exercise, like diaphragmatic breathing, or a relaxation exercise, like progressive muscle relaxation. If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes of trying, get up and do something relaxing, like reading, until you feel sleepy again.

What to do when you can’t sleep and have to wake up early

When you can’t sleep and have to wake up early, try breathing exercises, like diaphragmatic breathing, or relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation. Avoid looking at the time and instead focus on staying relaxed. If possible, get some extra sleep the next day to make up for lost sleep tonight. And keeping your sleep debt low overall will make short nights of sleep less impactful when they happen.

Should I just stay up if I can’t sleep?

If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes of trying, do a sleep reset. Get out of bed and do a relaxing activity, like reading, until you feel sleepy again. When you’re in bed, try breathing exercises, like diaphragmatic breathing, or relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation, to fall asleep. Do another sleep reset if needed.

Why won’t my body let me fall asleep?

Your body might not let you fall asleep because of anxiety, stress, depression, or poor sleep hygiene, which includes getting light, having caffeine, eating meals, or doing intense exercise too close to bedtime.

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