Why can’t you sleep? 4 possible reasons that have nothing to do with caffeine

Here’s why you might be tossing and turning—along with expert advice on setting yourself up for better sleep starting tonight.
Published 9 December 2020 | Updated 28 June 2024

Here we go again, another night of being unable to sleep. It’s not like you had four shots of espresso after dinner or anything! Below, sleep and health experts break down four common sleep problems and offer simple ways to handle them—so you can get the rest you deserve.

4 common sleep hurdles and how to handle them

1. Racing thoughts

The moment you lie down, your mind shifts into overdrive—thinking about your endless to-do list, stressing about future obligations ... argh. First of all, know that this happens to many of us at some time or another. In one American survey, 43% of adults said stressful thoughts had kept them up in the previous month.

Until someone invents an off button for the human brain, acceptance might be your best bet. “When your mind is racing, I tell people to stop trying to fight it and let it race a little,” says W. Christopher Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution. “When you start trying to control your mind is when things really go off the rails with sleep.” He suggests turning on a bedside light and taking a few moments to transcribe those runaway thoughts. A 2017 study of 57 adults in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that people who spent five minutes writing out a detailed to-do list (14 items long, on average!) fell asleep more quickly and reported lower levels of stress than those who simply journaled about the day’s accomplishments.

Still tossing and turning? A calming distraction might help. “I actually recommend leaving the bed if you’re lying there and can’t quiet your thoughts,” says Monique May, MD. “Get up and go to another room and do something relaxing, like reading a book or listening to calming music.” Meditation might also be helpful for reducing stress and creating the right conditions for a good night’s sleep. Once you start to feel sleepier—and trust that you will!—head back to bed and give it another shot.

2. A restless body

Sleep can seem physically impossible when, say, your shoulders tense after a long day spent at your desk, or you feel antsy and full of energy after watching a TV show. In these cases, a bedtime relaxation activity can be helpful, Dr. May says. “Think of it this way, you warm up before you exercise to signal to your body that you’re about to change gears,” she says. “So here you’re doing something at the end of the day that tells your body to start relaxing.”

If possible, aim to wind down with a gentle relaxation activity about an hour before your intended bedtime, Dr. May advises. Some evidence-based options to consider:

  • A warm shower or bath: Body temperature plays an important role in regulating circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells your body when to be alert and when to be sleepy. At night, the body naturally cools to signal that it’s entering the nocturnal phase. Research has found that taking a shower or bath can assist this process. After you warm up under the water, you cool off as water evaporates from your skin. This helps the brain understand it's time for bed.
  • A brief breathing exercise: Slow, deep breathing can have a relaxing effect on the body and mind, possibly by increasing the production of melatonin, a hormone that supports sleep. Here’s a simple breathing exercise you can try tonight: sitting comfortably, inhale slowly from your belly for a count of 4 seconds. Hold for 7 seconds, then slowly breathe out for a count of 8. Repeat 3 to 7 times.
  • Gentle stretching or yoga: Gentle movement like forward folds or twists may help your body relax and power down into sleep mode. Consider unwinding with a basic yoga sequence that's adaptable for beginners and advanced yoga practitioners alike.

3. A hectic schedule that runs late

When your calendar is jam-packed with activities, the evening might feel like the only time of the day when you’re able to do what you want to do. That can make sleep seem like the last thing you want to prioritise.

Dr. May’s recommendation is to assess your overall schedule and devote a week or so to logging your activities by the hour. Then, evaluate whether you can free up more time for sleep by shifting some of your regular night time activities to earlier in the day. One trick for doing so? Bundle them with other tasks. For instance, maybe you could enjoy a catch-up phone call with your friend while prepping dinner. Or listening to your favourite podcast during your morning workout.

Going forward, Dr. Winter suggests setting an alert on your phone to remind you when to start getting ready for bed. So if you want to be snoozing by 11:00 pm, a 10:00 pm alarm for bedtime might make sense. Within a week, you could notice a positive difference in how you feel, he says. Building that connection between a predictable bedtime and feeling good can help you better prioritise going to bed in the future.

4. Fear of failure

It can be a vicious cycle, you can’t fall asleep for a few nights in a row, so you begin to dread bedtime because you’re certain you’ll just lie there staring at the ceiling. Going in with a sense of defeat can make falling asleep even harder, thus perpetuating the pattern. “Insomnia is often the fear that you’re not going to be able to sleep, and your performance anxiety kicks in,” Dr. Winter says.

His advice, try to dial down your expectations of how quickly you should drift off. Instead, focus on the pleasurable sensations of physical rest. “Close your eyes, relax, and enjoy the comfortable bed you’re in as opposed to feeling like something’s wrong if you can’t immediately fall asleep,” Dr. Winter explains. It’s not a race!

Reassuring sleep truths to keep in mind

  • Calming activities can take time to kick in. For many people, solving the sleep puzzle takes a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best. It’s common to have to try an activity a few nights in a row to get into a restful groove. And even then, not every technique works for everyone. Don’t give up! Allowing yourself to experiment will help you hit your sleep stride.
  • Nobody gets perfect sleep every night. Even when you have a solid sleep strategy figured out, occasional insomnia is normal. “You will still have sleepless nights every now and then—you’re only human,” Dr. Winter says. Try to show yourself compassion and patience, and keep some extra sleep strategies handy for the next time you need them.