What to Do if You Can’t Sleep: Insomnia Tips

Dr. Cassie taking the pulse of a male patient who can't sleep.

When you wake up in the middle of the night and you can’t sleep, it can feel like a nightmare. Tossing and turning in bed. Counting down the hours and minutes until your alarm goes off. Replaying the next day’s to-dos over and over in your head. Getting frustrated with yourself. Knowing that sleep is necessary, but being unable to force yourself back into it.

We’ve seen (and experienced) it all. Insomnia isn’t uncommon—1 in about 7 adults can’t sleep, while 1 in 4 women report sleep issues. And no one’s sleep is perfect. One (or two) “bad” nights a week is normal, and your body is designed biologically to treat not sleeping with, well, sleep.

But what if those bad nights stretch into weeks or even months? This is where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia can be incredibly useful. Insomnia is medically defined as at least three nights of sleeplessness for at least three months consecutively. Not quite at that level? These tips for when you can’t sleep are still incredibly useful.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomina?

CBT-I is a structured treatment for those with insomnia. It lasts between 6 and 8 weeks, typically, and is usually facilitated by a trained professional to address the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can contribute to not being able to sleep. It’s like sleep therapy—because insomnia needs whole-body treatments.

While we often prefer you checking in with your doctor before attempting treatments on your own, we have recently recommended a few supplemental options, including a CBT-I app that patients have loved.

Tips for When You Can’t Sleep

Newer research also shows that sleep is an antioxidant to the brain. In 2012 studies, scientists discovered the glymphatic system, an amazing garbage disposal system in the brain that utilizes astroglial cells to remove proteins and other metabolites from the central nervous system. Simply put, it helps to detox your brain, all while you catch your zzzzzs.

As we’ve talked about before, routine is essential to good sleep. So once you have good sleep hygiene, add these tips into your arsenal when you can’t sleep.

Get Out of Bed

If you find yourself unable to doze back to dreamland when you’re awakened in the middle of the night, get up. Yep, get out of bed if you’ve been trying to sleep for more than 20 minutes. Even if you’re tired, even if you feel like you can’t keep your eyes open. Tossing and turning in bed is actually counter-productive. It trains your body to think that rolling back and forth, adjusting your pillow for the millionth time, and laying there with your eyes closed is normal. And we don’t want that.

Don’t Turn on a Screen

This can’t be a surprise to anyone anymore, but the blue light that emanates from screens has been proven to decrease the levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. So scrolling through your phone or reading on your tablet are not the best options when you can’t sleep at 2 a.m. It also means skipping streaming. Yep, turn off the Netflix and open a paper book. Or, listen to a meditation.

Sit Up

Sitting up, and reading a hard copy of something with a light on seems like it would trigger your body to want to start the wake-up process, but doing something that takes your mind off of the fact that you’re not sleeping can help you relax more once you do hit the hay again.

Try sitting up in your living room on a comfy chair or the couch for at least 30 minutes before you try to snuggle up with your pillow again. This recreates the bedtime ritual of being awake and winding down, so as to help your body remember that it’s time to sleep.

Write Your Feelings Down

Yep, journaling. We know it sounds trite, but writing down thoughts that might be ruminating while you toss and turn can clear them out of your head. And reduced anxiety or fear can help coax your body into remembering that it’s time to go back to sleep.

Or, if what’s bumbling around in your head is your to-do list, keep a pad of paper and pen on your nightstand. Then you can quickly jot down things you think of while in bed, and hep to circumvent the can’t-sleep cycle before it starts.

If CBT-I or other insomnia treatments aren’t working for you, consider the physical health causes of sleep disturbances. If the root is thyroid or hormone-related, MIMC practitioners can help.