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Googling What To Do When You Can’t Sleep? We Have the Answers

What to do when you can’t sleep isn’t just about what you do when in bed. Instead, it’s the right daytime and nighttime sleep-promoting behaviors.
Published
2022-06-01
Updated
16 MINS
Man lying in bed awake can't sleep

It’s 3 a.m. You stare at the blinking lights of the digital clock in your bedroom. You’ve tossed and turned for the past few hours, trying to fall asleep but to no avail. You’re frustrated, definitely still tired, and anxious about what this means for tomorrow’s energy when you finally Google “What to do when you can’t sleep.” So, what’s the culprit behind your sleepless nights?

Unfortunately, there are various triggers — at least 31 we’ve detailed here — for why you can’t sleep. It could be too-late-in-the-day workouts, work stress, or a snoring spouse. Identifying the exact cause(s) of your sleeplessness is fundamental to your game plan for falling and staying asleep.

Much of it boils down to sleep hygiene, which is the upkeep of daytime and nighttime behaviors that influence the way you sleep. You need to time your daily activities to your circadian rhythm (the internal body clock), so you’re working with your sleep-wake cycle rather than against it for sleep hygiene to be truly effective.

If you feel a little overwhelmed, don’t worry. We’ll go into the details below to help you get back on track with sleep so you can feel and function at your best.

Here’s What To Do When You Can’t Sleep

From the most immediate thing you can do in bed — like a sleep reset — to healthy sleep-promoting behaviors during daylight, we show you what to do when you can’t sleep.

Do a Sleep Reset

Tackles: 

  • Middle-of-the-night awakenings.

If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, do a sleep reset.

Here’s how it works:

  • Give yourself 15 minutes to fall asleep. Once you’ve exceeded that time limit and are still awake, get out of bed (and the room, if necessary).
  • Find a comfy spot to sit, like a couch or armchair. Next, pick a relaxing, low-stakes activity that won’t heighten your arousal level and make you too wired for sleep. Top choices include a book you’ve read before (that’s hopefully not too stimulating) or calming music. The goal here is to make you sufficiently sleepy for bed again.
  • Once you feel drowsy, head back to bed. Be prepared to repeat this process as often as needed until you fall back to sleep.

If you’re new to this concept, don’t worry. The RISE app’s “Sleep Reset” habit will hand-hold you through the process.

Check Your Sleep Environment

Tackles:

  • A bedroom that’s too hot, bright, and noisy, whether at home or on vacation
  • A sleep partner who snores
  • Pets in bed
  • Parasomnias like sleepwalking and sleeptalking

The ideal sleep environment should be cool, dark, and quiet, which the RISE app can remind you with its “Check Your Environment” habit.

  • Keep it cool: Aim for a bedroom temperature between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure it isn’t too cold, say below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, as it will only make it harder to wake up the next day.
  • Keep it dark: A pitch-black bedroom is best. Use blackout curtains (or blinds) and an eye mask. Turn off all electronic devices in the room or put them in “Do Not Disturb” mode, so they won’t light up with incoming notifications.
  • Keep it quiet: Complete silence is the golden rule. Soundproof your room with noise-blocking curtains, carpets, and floor coverings. Close the windows and use earplugs too. If 100% quietness isn’t possible, a white noise machine may help you fall asleep more quickly, although you may not necessarily sleep better.

On a side note, if you’re one to sleepwalk, a safe sleep environment tops your list. Keep your bedroom clutter-free and all windows and doors locked to prevent injuring yourself (or others) during your nighttime wanderings.

Make Time for Winding Down

RISE app screenshot showing how to personalize your energy wind-down activities
The RISE app lets you customize your ideal wind-down routine when you add the "Evening Routine" habit to your Energy Schedule.

Tackles:

  • Chronic insomnia
  • Pre-bedtime arousal and stress
  • Revenge bedtime procrastination
  • Parasomnias like sleepwalking and sleep talking
  • Medical conditions like restless legs syndrome (RLS)
  • Mental health issues like depression and anxiety
  • Menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause

Racing thoughts and tense muscles make it hard to fall asleep, leading to a resulting lack of sleep the next day. Unfortunately, many of us are only too good at over-exciting our senses such that we have trouble falling asleep at night. The antidote to sleep deprivation in such cases? Give yourself sufficient time to wind down in the 1-2 hours leading up to your bedtime.

An effective wind-down routine centers around calming activities that put you in the right mind for sleep. Try these sleep tips:

  • Take a warm bath: When you take a warm bath (or shower) just before bed, the warm water dilates your blood vessels, which are then exposed to cool air when you step out of the bathroom. In response, your core body temperature drops, making it easier to doze off later.
  • Mentally decelerate: Instead of engaging in stimulating activities that cognitively arouse your brain (like scrolling on social media or binging Netflix on your laptop), do a brain dump. Write down any anxiety-provoking, worry-inducing thoughts on a piece of paper like a journal. It can even be in the form of a to-do list to dial down your anxiety and stress levels. Add the “Do a Brain Dump” habit to your Energy Schedule, so you remember to do this every night before bed.
  • Relaxation techniques: These techniques relax your mind and body so that it's easier to drift off to sleep. The RISE app offers four relaxation strategies, such as progressive muscle relaxation (tensing then relaxing the muscles) and diaphragmatic breathing (a deep breathing technique). Just add the “Relaxation” habit to your Energy schedule, so you have less trouble sleeping tonight.

To build your ideal wind-down routine, simply add the “Evening Routine” habit to your Energy Schedule in the RISE app.

Associate Your Bed With Sleep — And Sleep Alone

Tackles:

  • Chronic insomnia
  • Pre-bedtime arousal and stress
  • Revenge bedtime procrastination

It’s tempting to eat, read, work, Netflix, and engage in other non-sleeping activities in your comfy bed. Unfortunately, this only dilutes the association of your bed with sleep. The solution is simple: Practice stimulus control by reserving your bed for sleep and nothing else (with sex being the only exception).

Leverage Light Exposure to Your Advantage

RISE app screenshot showing you when to get and avoid bright light
The "Bright Light Control" habit tells you the ideal timings for light exposure and avoidance to lower the odds of sleepless nights.

Tackles:

  • Chronic insomnia
  • Circadian misalignment problems, including social jetlag, virtual jet lag, travel jet lag, shift work disorder, and adjustment to daylight saving time (DST)

Not many people realize that light exposure can be a double-edged sword. Light starts, stops, and resets the internal clock via a three-pronged approach:

  • It tells your body to stop producing melatonin, the sleep-promoting hormone.
  • It raises cortisol levels in your body, which is an alertness-boosting hormone.
  • It elevates your body’s serotonin load, which is a mood-regulating brain chemical that converts to melatonin later at night, so you can fall asleep more easily.

So, how do you make light work for you? Here’s what we recommend:

Bask in bright light the moment you awake. Toss back the curtains, open the windows, and lean into the sun’s warmth. Even better, walk or exercise outdoors in the presence of sunlight.

If natural light isn’t available where you are, turn on the artificial lights that emit blue light in your home. While indoor lighting is substantially less intense than direct sunlight, blue light still mimics the three-way mechanism of natural light to help you feel more awake in the morning.

Throughout the day, make sure you get sufficient daytime light (preferably multiple hours) to act as a bulwark against bright light exposure at night. Noted chronobiologist Till Roenneberg (the author of Internal Time) and colleagues found that every hour spent outdoors during the day brought sleep forward by roughly 30 minutes.

At night, limit light exposure as part of your wind-down routine. Ideally, you want to avoid all sources of artificial lighting four hours before your target bedtime. The “Blue Light Control” habit in the RISE app tells you when to expose yourself to blue light (in the morning) and when to avoid it (in the evening).

That said, we understand it’s not entirely possible to pass your evenings in complete darkness. After all, we aren’t living in prehistoric times. For that reason, don a pair of blue light-blocking glasses. Need help reminding yourself? Simply add the “Block All Blue Light” habit to your Energy Schedule in the RISE app.

Adopt a Consistent Sleep Schedule

RISE app screenshot showing your sleep need so you can keep sleep debt low
You can find your unique sleep need when you click on the "Profile" icon on the top-right corner in the RISE app.

Tackles:

  • Chronic insomnia
  • Circadian misalignment problems, including social jetlag, virtual jet lag, and adjustment to daylight saving time (DST)
  • Revenge bedtime procrastination
  • Menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause

If an out-of-tune body clock is the reason for your sleepless nights, a consistent sleep schedule can help reorient your circadian rhythm for better sleep tonight.

The best sleep and wake times are the ones that take your chronotype into account. For the uninitiated, your chronotype dictates your preferred sleep and wake patterns, in addition to other key other biological processes like body temperature changes and cortisol production.

But working with your chronotype may not always be possible, say if you’re a night owl in an early bird world. In that case, you need to identify your wake-up time and work backward to make sure your new sleep schedule accounts for your sleep need (the genetically determined amount of sleep your body needs). For example, if the RISE app measures your biological sleep need as 9 hours, and you need to wake up at 7 a.m., go to bed at least half an hour before 10 p.m. to account for sleep latency (how long you take to fall asleep) and sleep fragmentation (how often you wake up in the night).

To help you meet your sleep need more effortlessly, align your target bedtime with your Melatonin Window per the RISE app. This is the roughly one-hour window of time in which your brain produces the most melatonin it will all night to help you doze off and stay asleep till morning.

Focus On Sleep Debt, Not “Sleep Quality”

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The Sleep screen shows your running sleep debt, which is the only sleep score you need to care about.

Tackles:

  • Orthosomnia, the obsession with “perfect sleep”

It’s not the quality of sleep — for which there is no official definition — but the quantity of sleep that matters. Instead of fretting over how much time you spend in each stage of the sleep cycle (a medical condition known as orthosomnia that’s concerned with getting “perfect sleep”), focus on getting enough shut-eye, as meeting your sleep need via naturalistic sleep is quality sleep.

That’s where the RISE app can help. It measures your running sleep debt (the amount of sleep you’ve missed in the past 14 days relative to your sleep need), which is the only sleep score you need to care about.

Actively pay down any debt that’s more than five hours with an earlier bedtime, afternoon naps, and sleeping in (as a last resort).

Curtail Sleep-Detracting Substances at the Right Time

RISE app screenshot telling you what time to limit caffeine
Know when to cut off your caffeine consumption with the "Limit Caffeine" habit in the RISE app to avoid sleepless nights.

Tackles:

  • Too-late consumption of alcohol, caffeine, water, and evening meals
  • Circadian misalignment problems, including social jetlag, virtual jet lag, travel jet lag, shift work disorder, and adjustment to daylight saving time (DST)
  • Menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause

Many of us discount the extent to which our eating and drinking patterns affect our sleep. But what and when you eat and drink has significant influence on your odds of a good night’s sleep. For starters, you’ll want to avoid too-late-in-the-day consumption of these four substances:

  • Alcohol: Contrary to popular conception, alcohol doesn’t promote healthy, naturalistic sleep. Sure, it helps you doze off quickly. But this comes with a side of fragmented sleep as you’re more likely to wake up from the alcohol-induced thirst during the night. If you must indulge in a drink, use RISE’s “Avoid Late Alcohol” habit to find out the last call for a nightcap.
  • Caffeine: Almost everyone has experienced sleeplessness after drinking caffeine too late in the day. Because caffeine stays in your system for up to 10 hours, RISE’s “Limit Caffeine” habit tells you when to cut off caffeine consumption based on your unique chronobiology.
  • Fluids: The last thing you want after you’ve fallen asleep is for your full bladder to wake you up in the middle of the night. Instead of cramming most of your water intake in the few hours leading up to your bedtime, drink as much water as you can from the moment you wake up until the late afternoon. From there, taper off your fluid consumption and stop drinking in the two hours before you sleep.
  • Large meals: Overeating before bed is never a good idea. It only sets you up for digestive problems like bloating and acid reflux, making sleep the farthest thing on your mind. What’s more, blood rushes to your gut during digestion and raises your core body temperature. This works against your body’s nighttime temperature drop to lull you to sleep. To avoid this scenario, add the “Avoid Late Meals” habit in the RISE app. According to Satchin Panda ( a leading expert in the field of circadian rhythm research and author of The Circadian Code), having your last meal in the 2-4 hours before bed enhances your odds of deep sleep while downplaying sleep disturbances.

On a related note, did you know that keeping consistent meal times during the day can help correct an off-kilter internal clock? Indeed, people struggling with circadian misalignment, such as those battling social jetlag and the shift work populace can use eating as a circadian cue, aside from well-timed light exposure.

Work Out at the Right Times

Tackles:

  • Chronic insomnia
  • Circadian misalignment problems, including social jetlag, virtual jet lag, travel jet lag, shift work disorder, and adjustment to daylight saving time (DST)
  • Pre-bedtime arousal and stress
  • Mental health issues like depression and anxiety

Regularly working out does wonders for your sleep, but only if you do it at the right times.

For chronic insomniacs, exercise has been shown to reduce the time taken to fall asleep and improve sleep efficiency (time spent asleep while in bed). It may even help with other sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Sweating it out has also been proven to be an effective stress-reliever.

That said, steer clear of evening workouts as the increased heart rate, body temperature, cortisol levels, and blood pressure make it more challenging for you to doze off. Working out too late also delays your melatonin production the following night, which means you go to bed later and are less likely to meet your sleep need.

So, when’s the best time to work out? Our guide to exercising will tell you it’s one of these three periods:

  • Grogginess Zone: Feeling groggy when you wake up is completely normal — that’s why we call it your Grogginess Zone in RISE. Schedule a sweat sesh during your Grogginess Zone (per the RISE app) to help you get over sleep inertia more quickly.
  • Morning and evening peaks: Everyone has two energy peaks every day — one in the morning (after your Grogginess Zone) and one in the evening (before your wind-down officially begins). Exercising in either of these peaks gives you the best chance of achieving your PR or even a world record.
  • Afternoon dip: Feeling drowsy during your energy dip is natural too. A bout of exercising counteracts the innate sleepiness during a time which you might otherwise be languishing.

There’s only one exception to working out at night: sex. Engaging in physical intimacy triggers sleep-promoting hormonal changes. Orgasms release oxytocin (the love hormone) and prolactin (a sleep-influencing growth factor) while suppressing cortisol production. When you aren’t so keyed up post-sex, it’s easier for you to succumb to the siren call of sleep.

Consider Therapeutic and Pharmacological Interventions

RISE app screenshot showing your melatonin window which can tell you the best time to go to sleep
The "Melatonin Supplements" habit in the RISE app is useful if you need to take melatonin supplements at the right time to help you meet your sleep need.

Tackles:

  • Chronic insomnia
  • Circadian misalignment problems, including social jetlag, virtual jet lag, travel jet lag, shift work disorder, and adjustment to daylight saving time (DST)
  • Parasomnias like sleepwalking and sleeptalking
  • Medical conditions like restless legs syndrome (RLS)
  • Mental health issues like depression and anxiety
  • Menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause

For health problems and circadian misalignment issues that negatively affect sleep, you may need to go one step further than strengthening your sleep hygiene.

Depending on your underlying trigger, try therapeutic or pharmacological interventions or both. Here are a few examples to illustrate that:

  • Insomnia: Instead of sleep aids, the American College of Physicians (ACP) recommends cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) as the “first-line treatment for adults with chronic insomnia.” Aside from tackling symptoms of insomnia, CBT-I is also useful for managing other medical conditions that often coexist with this sleep problem. Common examples include depression, anxiety, and sleep apnea.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): This sleep disorder is highly prevalent in the United States, affecting roughly 22 million Americans. As mentioned earlier, OSA is associated with insomnia. Your primary doctor may recommend lifestyle interventions like regular exercise and side-sleeping, on top of CBT-I and a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.
  • Travel jet lag: Sleep aids aren’t generally a good substitute for healthy sleep hygiene, as they tend to create an unhealthy overdependence without 100% efficacy. That said, melatonin supplements may help correct moderate circadian misalignment like travel jet lag, but only when you take them at the right time. We recommend adding the “Melatonin Supplements” habit to your Energy Schedule to help you figure out the ideal timing based on your unique chronobiology.

If you still struggle with what to do when you can’t sleep despite practicing healthy sleep hygiene, it’s time to consult a sleep specialist. Through an in-depth diagnosis, your specialist can help ferret out any underlying causes behind your sleeplessness.

Regain Control of Your Zzz’s

Hopefully, this list has given you a good idea of what to do when you can’t sleep. Almost always, the solution is to bolster your sleep hygiene by practicing healthy sleep habits 24/7.

Indeed, the trick to sleeping better isn’t about what you do in the 1-2 hours before bed (although as we’ve shown you, a well-designed wind-down routine is vital to helping you get the shut-eye you need). Instead, it’s what you do — and when you do them — during the other hours of wakefulness that matters immensely.

Given that many of us are already living a hectic lifestyle, it can be challenging to keep all these sleep habits in mind, much less perform them at the ideal times. That’s where RISE can help. With its easy-to-use interface and 20+ science-backed habits that prompt you to do the right things at the right times based on your unique chronobiology, it’s the only sleep app you need for better sleep for better energy.

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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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