Managing Stress: 6 Good (And 5 Bad) Things To Do When You Can’t Sleep

When my insomnia hit the other night, I did everything wrong.

I’d managed to work myself up about something before bed, but because I have the stamina of a toddler when I’m upset, I tired myself out quickly and crashed hard around 11:30pm. Then, at 4:30am, my brain went on like a light. There I was, in that strange time when “tonight” becomes “tomorrow” and the last thing in the world you should be doing is witnessing it. (Unless of course you’re doing something really fun—which I wasn’t. I was lying there with looping thoughts, the lights on, a search window open on my laptop, and Twitter fired up on my phone…)

We have written plenty about sleep hygiene here. We polled you once to find out how much you sleep (a lot!); we asked you guys to share your bedtime rituals with us (they were great!); we’ve explored how sleep can help your looks (duh); and we’ve covered ayurvedic principles about sleep before, as well.

But isn’t it funny (dumb) that no matter how much you know about the Right Thing To Do for your wellbeing, it’s often exactly when you need that advice the most that it escapes you?

With that in mind, here’s a primer, filled with things you already know, on the best and worst things to do when you can’t sleep. Obviously this advice is highly subjective. Where appropriate, we’ve mentioned some actual science to back us up. And, as always, we want your tips in the comments.

The Bad

1. Tweeting, emailing, checking your stocks, approving comments on your blog etc. Research shows that light-emitting devices can suppress the production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin—which means when you wake up to check your cell, or simply have it on blinking at you from the bedside table, you’re sending signals to your brain that it isn’t time to chill out. Turn them off, use airplane mode, or put them on the other side of the room. When you wake up, try your best not to check them.

2. Watching scary TV shows. I can’t watch scary things at night anymore without getting nightmares and waking up a lot. Granted I’m on the sensitive side (cough), but there is good research that shows how disruptive this can be. It can spike stress hormones in the body and put you in an excited state (not the good kind) that doesn’t bode well for rest. Some people can watch anything before bed and fall asleep, but if you wake up in the middle of the night and decide to flip on the tube, maybe don’t try to catch up on a season’s worth of Boardwalk Empire?

3. Turning on the light. This actually can be a good thing (see below), but in general, if you wake up and have to pee or you stand a chance of falling back asleep fairly quickly, don’t turn on the lights or lift up your black-out blinds. (You all have black-out blinds, right? If not, you should! They’re super cheap at Ikea and make a world of difference.) For the same reasons you want to avoid electronics, you also want to avoid turning on the lights: It tells your brain that it’s time to be awake by suppressing sleep hormones. Pas bon.

4. Drinking booze. We’ve all seen the research about nightcaps actually disrupting sleep, and here’s why: It robs you of REM and the other, deeper stages of sleep—which are the ones that make you feel most rested. A glass or two of wine can make you feel nice and relaxed, and that can be sleep-promoting, but drinking too close to bedtime (not to mention in the middle of the night) should probably be avoided.

5. Just lying there freaking out. If you’re past the point of no return—meaning you can just tell you won’t be falling back asleep any time soon—do something else. You can go ahead and break rule number 3 here. Get up and do something, anything, until you feel sleepy again.

The Good

1. A cup of herbal tea or some aromatherapy. Many herbs—chamomile, lavender, valerian root—have been shown in research (and by wise grandmothers) to make you sleepy. Similarly, jasmine has a sedative effect when inhaled, as do Hope Gillerman’s Sleep Remedy and Essence of Vali‘s. Just be sure to do your research and/or check with your doctor before you start dosing yourself. Nature makes some very powerful plants

2. Reading something you’ve read before. This works wonders for me. A yogi and a nerdy scholar at heart, I have been rereading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for years now. Here’s why it works: When you read things you are already familiar with, it doesn’t stimulate your mind with new information the way an exciting novel or a piece of nonfiction would. In fact, it has the opposite effect of comforting you with information you already possess, and, well, kind of boring you.

3. Meditate. A tough sell at 4am, I know, but it helps quiet the mind and ready you for more sleep. Our tips are here—and the compassion meditation is an especially nice one to do because it puts your focus on people you love. You could also try listening to recordings of meditations by Pema Chodron (or someone else, but man is she good). You can break rule number 1, above, for this one, obviously.

4. Do some yoga. Nothing too vigorous, but some poses have been shown to promote sleepiness. There’s a nice list over here.

5. Wake up your buddy and chat and/or have sex. This requires a forgiving and generous significant other, but if you have one, and you know they won’t mind hearing what’s on your mind and helping you simmer down, this can be very helpful. As for sex, just bear in mind that for some people, sex is sleep inducing (for example, every single man who ever walked the earth*) and for others it’s sleep inhibiting.

6. Pretend it’s already tomorrow. If you’re really stuck, try pretending it’s not 4am but 8am and it’s time to get ready for work or school. Take a shower, brush your teeth, drink some water—but be sure to skip the coffee. It sounds nuts but this has worked for me! At some point, when you’re going through the motions, something in your mind will click and you’ll think: “This is totally insane. I should be asleep right now.” And then maybe, just maybe, you will be.

Your turn! What are your tips: What’s the best—and worst—things one can do when one can’t sleep?

Image via

* I kid! Sort of.

21 Responses to “Managing Stress: 6 Good (And 5 Bad) Things To Do When You Can’t Sleep”
  1. Rebecca says:

    I don’t usually have problems sleeping these days, unless it’s when the perimenopausal night sweats hit me or I’m on a crappy hotel bed. In any case, I do have a few rituals.

    Unless the weather is hot (rare where I live) I warm up my microwavable pillow and take that into bed with me.

    Once in bed I take my Lotus Wei Inner Peace Elixir.

    I use body butter on my hands and feet, something with a great but mild scent, sometimes Lotus Wei Inner Peace serum.

    Then I love to read til I get to the point I can barely keep my eyes open and manage to turn off the very soft salt lamp next to my bed. I’m pretty much instantly out after a while reading (but that means I need to get into bed early enough if I want enough sleep).

  2. Ruth says:

    No computer/technology/TV at least a half hour before bed – preferably an hour.

    I have an eReader which works as well as a regular book. I’ll also do some knitting in bed or even just a long prep time to get to bed – brush teeth, floss, cream on feet, cuddle the dog, brush hair, make bed, etc that are calming and my “bed time” signals. Always works.

    If I know I will have a lot on my mind, with work or life, I’ll take a valerian or two.

    I am *VERY* adamant that my bedroom is for sleep and sex only. Absolutely no TV or any other clutter allowed. At all.

  3. felicia says:

    One thing I do: 20-30 minutes before you want to go to bed, start stretching out your arms and yawning (even if it’s just pretend). You’ll end up really yawning and stretching and feel ready to sleep!

  4. Alisea says:

    I know for me, I need absolute dark and quiet. Unfortunately, my husband can’t sleep unless he’s listening to tv or something funny. I’m the kind of person who can’t fall asleep watching television, so it can be really frustrating.. I’ve taken to going to bed after him :( so that when he’s asleep I can finally turn off the noise and try to sleep myself.
    It’s a bummer, because I love cuddling before bed, but if I want to turn it off I have to get out of bed and turn it off and come back, and that just takes the sleepy right out of me. Occasionally the noise doesn’t bother me, but that’s not often enough for me to be happy about.
    A good thing that helps me sleep is when my cat cuddles me right under my arm and kneads into me and purrs really loud.. she’s like a great big white noise machine :)

  5. Sam P says:

    @Rebecca, would you mind sharing what body butters you are using? I have not been able to find a clean and affordable body butter. I’ve tried all sorts of oils but still have dry lizard legs by end of day.

  6. Samantha says:

    @Sam P: the Bubble & Bee body butters are quite moisturizing and not too $$. And totally clean.

  7. Rebecca says:

    @Sam P, try using any oil on damp skin for better moisturizing, and of course don’t forget to hydrate on the inside. I do DIY, a mix of cocoa and shea butters with oils. I haven’t perfected my own recipe yet but I just found advice on doing 75% solids (like cocoa and/or shea) with 25% oils (like almond, coconut) plus whatever you want for scent. I’m going to try this soon: I love Sprout cream ( which is on the more expensive side but I love it so much I will always keep some around no matter how good my DIY gets. Moksa is great and what I’d consider cheap for body butter, I have the kilimanjaro (in butter and soap form) and the smell is wonderful. Good luck!

    Also, is it only your legs that are dry? If so I wonder if some product you use only on legs is the problem (shaving product maybe? an astringent used post shave?).

  8. Naomi says:

    I have no technology in my bedroom – TV, computer stuff, everything is done in my living room. I try to read for a while when I climb into bed but have switched from using my Kindle or iPad to an actual book to see if this helps and it seems to be better. I bought a humidifier this year and it seems to help me feel fresher when I wake up. I sometimes put on my iPod and play very soothing meditation music – I only ever listen to this when I’m going to sleep (for years now) and it seems to be a trigger so if I’m having trouble it can sometimes trick me into falling asleep which is especially useful on flights. Where I need to be careful is to make sure I don’t drink too much water before bed or I’m up several times in the night, and I need a very cool temperature as I seem to get night sweats.

    Oh, and I use sprays. I especially like anything with lavender and thanks to NMDL I’ve been turned onto a number of clean ones!

  9. Steffie says:

    Actually, you don’t kid about men falling asleep after sex. Clinical research confirms that men feel sleepy after sex because ejaculation triggers a release of sleep hormones. The later in the day this is for them, the more likely they are to give in to it. Afternoon and morning sex isn’t as hard hitting, but they still feel sleepy.

    Cut them some slack; they literally can’t help it. In fact, abuse it. I’ve been known to trigger a nap for my beloved in order to do some housework/enjoy a chick flick/bake something/wrap his birthday or Christmas gifts or even just help him get to sleep so he can be at work early. He knows it, and certainly doesn’t mind.

    While it isn’t as sure fire, he’s been known to perform the same courtesy for me. Even if it doesn’t trigger the same hormone release, it does help me feel much more relaxed.

    My favorite go to remedy not involving a second party is a cup of warm milk.

  10. Alyssa M says:

    This made me laugh (especially the part about the significant other). Sometimes writing in my journal about what I’m stressed/freaking out about helps me get it out of my head and tires me out enough to sleep. I’m not a regular journal-writer but I keep one by my bed for when I am superfreakingout and need to get it out on paper!

  11. Dana says:

    I am a terrible sleeper so this happens to me almost every night…I try to think of something soothing (which can be a personal remedy). A little trick I use is to try to think of every piece of clothing I own — it’s exhausting and way more fun than counting sheep :)

  12. comagirl says:

    I have unsuccessfully battled with insomnia all of my life, (being a terrible sleeper as a child as well). I normally just lie in bed and meditate, but if I get up to read, I read a professional journal. If anything is going to put a person to sleep it is a good, boring, long professional journal article.

    Last night I was up at 2:00 a.m. At 5:00 a.m., I finally resigned myself to the fact that sleep was not in the cards for me, so I got up and started my day. I am dragging a** as I write this (4:00 p.m.)

    It is also noteworthy that alcohol disrupts sleep. I have not noticed too much of a difference myself, but I’m sure the notion is valid.

  13. Jeanine says:

    Last year I got very sick due to an antibiotic which totally disrupted my hormonal balance, raising my cortisol to sky-high levels. Although I had never had problems sleeping before, all of a sudden I had the worse insomnia ever! This is what helped me:

    1) turning off the lights to an absolute minimum at about 9pm at night (my partner complained that it was a cave!) :)
    2) never going to bed hungry as this makes your cortisol go higher to compensate for the blood sugar drop
    3) having a cup of chamomile tea which I find very soothing
    4) not exercising in the evening
    5) reading or watching something on my iPad if I did wake up… this helps to distract the mind and not worry so much about it (highly recommend that to Alisea’s husband as I am also the type that I need the TV on to be able to sleep…).
    6) sleeping till 9am (I know not everyone can do that, but there’s usually a 2nd wave of sleep that hits around 7am so it helps to compensate).

    I am happy to say that my sleep is now back to normal thanks to all this as well as some major destressing of my life!

  14. aryeta says:

    try tata harper`s aromatic bedtime treatment oil…:)
    you put it in your both palms, then you rub your palms and then you bring your palms to you nose
    and then take 5 deep slow breaths …
    you will se the effect right the way …i use this for my self and also when i do facials to my client
    and it does not take long that my client start snoring …:))
    you can also use it before you go to sleep if you keep thinking of stuff and can go to sleep.

  15. Sam P says:

    @Samantha, thanks so much for the recommendation. Those body butters look good and they ship to Australia. Always nice to be introduced to another clean brand.

    @Rebecca, thank you too for your great recommendations. More clean brands to explore! I checked out the link and am inspired to make my own at some point. In the meantime, I will order one of the suggested brands.

    To answer your question, I’m dry all over but mostly on my arms and legs. I use coconut oil when shaving and then moisturise with sweet almond oil but it’s not enough. Before reading the NMDL book, I was very devoted to a big name super moisturising body butter (it did a fantastic job of keeping my skin soft). But then I read the ingredient list. Horrors!

  16. comagirl says:

    I work out at the very beginning of the day. Working out in the late afternoon or evening can make insomnia worse.

  17. ell says:

    I installed Flux ( so that my monitor won’t generate bright light after the sun goes down. I don’t know what effect this has on insomnia, but my eyes certainly hurt a lot less when I do lots of nighttime computer usage. It gives your screen kind of an orangey glow. Since bright LED-type devices make it harder to fall asleep in theory this should help prevent insomnia.

  18. Yana says:

    @Sam P. – my skin was insanely dry like that for the last two years. I discovered that oil or butters, no matter how rich, are not enough in themselves because they don’t hydrate skin. A new routine started working for me.

    Try this:
    Get some vegetable glycerine and pick an oil, like coconut.
    Pour a dab of glycerine in your hand, mix in approximately the same amount of water, and apply over your skin. It will be wet and won’t absorb. Finish by applying a dollop of oil.

    Do this at least once a day, plus after you shower, for about two weeks, and you should see a perceptible difference in how your skin feels. If you shave, don’t apply glycerin immediately after–or at least test a small area in case it stings.

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