Things to Do When You Can’t Sleep Because Your Mind Is Racing

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, PhD, 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.

Woman on couch at night

Get out of bed

Staying in bed and trying to make yourself fall asleep is a bad idea, says Cormac O’Donovan, MD, 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 Dr. 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.

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