A woman who can't fall asleep puts her head down into her pillow with her fists next to her pillow.

Oleg Breslavtsev / Moment via Getty Images

What to Do When You Just Can’t Fall Asleep

Desperately want to get some shut-eye but just… can’t? We asked experts for advice on how to fall asleep ASAP.

By Ayren Jackson-CannadyApril 2, 2024


If you’re reading this, chances are you’re lying in bed, tossing and turning, desperately seeking advice on what to do when you can’t sleep. We’ve all been there—the frustration of staring at the ceiling while the rest of the world sleeps soundly (how dare they?!) is never fun. 

Fear not: We spoke with experts to discover sleep strategies (think: in-the-moment relaxation techniques and longer-term lifestyle tweaks) to help you get the rest you deserve, stat. 

What to Do When You Can’t Sleep

When you’re lying in bed and sleep seems elusive (no matter how many sheep you count), it helps to have a toolkit of effective strategies at the ready to help you find your way back to dreamland. Here are some expert-approved tips on what to do when you can’t sleep:

1. Avoid Electronic Devices 

It’s easier said than done (and you might be breaking this rule right now), but resist the temptation to reach for your phone or tablet when you can’t sleep. The blue light emitted by screens can suppress the production of melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles), making it harder to fall asleep. 

“In addition, looking at your phone and tablet may unintentionally make your mind more active than you want,” adds Susheel Pandit Patil, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

2. Practice Sleep Meditation 

Sleep meditations calm your mind and body to help you drift off into dreamland. They involve directing your attention to your breath or other body sensations and prompt you to stay present. This practice interrupts everyday thinking patterns and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, inducing a relaxation response. 

In fact, in a small 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, middle-aged and older adults who participated in meditation and other mindfulness practices showed a reduction in levels of insomnia, depression, and fatigue. 

You can find tons of calming sleep meditations on the Peloton App that can help you nod off, with classes ranging from five to 30 minutes in length.

3. Tense Your Muscles 

It might sound counterproductive, but tensing your muscles just might be the solution if you haven’t been able to fall asleep yet. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a practice that involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups throughout the body, starting from your toes, and working your way up to your head. This technique can help release physical tension and promote a sense of calm, possibly making it easier to drift off to sleep. 

4. Use Your Imagination 

Visualizing yourself in a peaceful and serene setting, such as a quiet beach or lush forest, can help shift your focus away from racing thoughts and induce a state of relaxation. 

We already know that spending time in real nature reduces anxiety. Now, researchers have found that nature-based guided imagery is also effective at reducing anxiety. Give it a try by picturing yourself (in vivid detail) sitting or walking through your favorite nature scene. Imagine the sights, sounds, and sensations of your chosen environment, immersing yourself fully in the experience.

5. Change Your Environment

“Get out of your bed and move to another room and do something relaxing, like journaling or reading, until you actually feel sleepy,” Dr. Patil suggests. If you can’t switch rooms, you can also try adjusting your environment by making the room darker or cooler, Dr. Patil adds. “This might be as simple as cracking a window or turning on a fan,” he says.

6. Do Some Light Yoga or Stretching 

Gentle yoga poses and light stretching exercises can help relax tense muscles and reduce stress. (Psst: Stretching and yoga classes on the Peloton App cater to all levels, with many offering restorative poses and gentle flows designed to soothe both body and mind.)

Whatever movement you choose, Dr. Patil says to make sure it’s something slow and easy. That’s because you want to avoid raising your heart rate and body temperature at bedtime, as it may have the opposite effect and only make it harder to nod off.

7. Just Breathe 

Still awake? A couple of minutes of deep breathing exercises (DBE) might do the trick to help settle your mind and fall asleep. According to research published in Frontiers in Physiology in 2023, short sessions of DBE have been found to alleviate anxiety, as well as reduce feelings of depression and anger.

Not sure where to begin? The 4-7-8 technique is a great DBE for inducing sleep, as it can activate your body’s relaxation response and promote feelings of calmness. Here’s how you do it, according to the Cleveland Clinic: 

  • Start by placing your tongue at the roof of your mouth, with the tip touching the back of your two front teeth. This is where your tongue will stay throughout the breathing exercise. 

  • Start with an exhale. Then breathe in through your nose for four seconds. 

  • Hold your breath for seven seconds. 

  • Finally, slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of eight seconds. 

  • Repeat this breathing cycle a few more times. 

You can also explore additional techniques by trying breathwork classes available on the Peloton App.

Possible Reasons Why You Can’t Fall Asleep

Difficulty sleeping can be frustrating and exhausting, especially when it becomes a recurring issue. Several factors can contribute to a struggle to nod off, but here are some of the most common reasons why you might have trouble falling asleep at night, according to Dr. Patil: 

  • Caffeine intake: Consuming caffeinated beverages late in the day can stimulate your nervous system and disrupt your ability to fall asleep.

  • Electronic devices: Exposure to the blue light emitted by smartphones, tablets, and computers before bedtime can suppress melatonin production and make it harder to fall asleep.

  • Environmental factors: Noise, light, temperature, and uncomfortable bedding can all impact your ability to fall asleep easily.

  • Irregular sleep schedule: Changes in your sleep routine, such as staying up late or sleeping in for a long time on weekends, can disrupt your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

  • Medications: Certain medications, including antidepressants, stimulants, and asthma medications, can interfere with sleep patterns. (Of course, don’t stop or change your medications without speaking to your doctor about your concerns first.) 

  • Mental health conditions: Conditions like depression or anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder can disrupt sleep and make it difficult to fall asleep at night.

  • Sleep disorders: Conditions such as insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless leg syndrome can interfere with your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.

  • Stress: High levels of stress or anxiety can make it difficult to relax and unwind, leading to trouble falling asleep.

An adult man lying in bed with his eyes open and head on his forehead, looking frustrated as he can't fall asleep.

RoxiRosita / Moment via Getty Images

Tips for Falling Asleep Faster in the Future

“Sleep is one of three pillars of a healthy lifestyle, including diet and exercise,” Dr. Patil says. “It’s important that you learn how to balance all three, with the goal of getting at least seven hours of sleep per night.”

If you find yourself struggling to fall asleep regularly, incorporating some simple lifestyle changes and habits into your routine may help. Here are some general tips for falling asleep faster on a regular basis:

1. Exercise Regularly 

Making time for regular exercise comes with ample benefits, including potential improvement in your sleep. Research shows that adults who exercised for at least half an hour a day slept, on average, 15 minutes longer than those who didn’t work out. And those extra Zzzs can add up! 

Just try to avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime as it may interfere with sleep, Dr. Patil notes.

2. Limit Screen Time Before Bed 

The blue light emitted by smartphones, tablets, and computers can disrupt your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and make it harder to fall asleep, Dr. Patil says. Try to put screens away at least an hour before bedtime and instead opt for relaxing activities such as reading or listening to calming music. 

3. Establish a Consistent Bedtime Routine 

Creating a relaxing bedtime routine can signal to your body that it’s time to wind down and prepare for sleep. Simple, relaxing activities like taking a warm bath can help get you ready for dreamland. For instance, a 2019 meta-analysis published in Sleep Medicine Reviews found that taking a warm bath or shower one to two hours before bedtime improved the likelihood of both falling asleep promptly and enjoying higher-quality sleep.

4. Maintain a Comfortable Sleep Environment 

Make your bedroom as snooze-friendly as possible by keeping it quiet, dark, and cool. Generally, “the optimal temperature range for a great night of sleep for most adults is anywhere between 60–69 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Shelby Harris, PsyD, a licensed psychologist who’s board-certified in behavioral sleep medicine, in a previous interview for The Output. Specifically, a 67-degree bedroom may support natural thermoregulation and comfort and reduce night sweats, Harris added. But as always, opt for the sleep environment that works best for you and your Zzzs.

5. Limit Caffeine and Alcohol 

Avoid consuming caffeinated beverages such as coffee, tea, and soda in the late afternoon and evening, as caffeine can interfere with your ability to fall asleep. Similarly, while alcohol may initially make you feel drowsy, it can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to fragmented sleep later in the night. 

When to Talk to a Healthcare Practitioner About Falling Asleep

If you’ve tried various strategies to improve your sleep but still find yourself struggling to nod off, it may be time to seek guidance from a healthcare practitioner. Here are some signs, according to Dr. Patil, that indicate you should talk to an expert about your sleep difficulties: 

  • Persistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep

  • Frequent episodes of loud snoring, gasping, or choking during sleep

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness or fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing during the day due to a lack of sleep

  • Intense, vivid dreams or hallucinations during sleep or when falling asleep or waking up

  • Leg discomfort or sensations that interfere with sleep (restless legs syndrome)

  • A hard time staying awake while driving or engaging in other activities

  • Chronic insomnia or sleep disturbances despite practicing good sleep hygiene (i.e. limiting caffeine, controlling room temperature, avoiding screens before bed, and so on)

“If you have concerns or questions about your sleep health, you should speak with a board-certified sleep physician,” Dr. Patil recommends. “You can find an accredited sleep center near you with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine Sleep Center tool.”

The Takeaway

When dreamland seems out of reach, knowing what to do when you can’t sleep can make all the difference. Avoiding electronic devices, practicing sleep meditation, and trying deep breathing exercises are just a few things you can incorporate into your nightly bedtime routine to ensure you doze off quickly. 

Understanding the factors that contribute to your sleep difficulties—think: late-in-the-day caffeine intake, irregular sleep schedules, and stress—can also go a long way at empowering you to address them effectively. And if sleep troubles persist despite your best efforts, talk to your doctor about the next best move. You’re not alone, and better sleep is within reach with the right strategies and support.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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