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 slumber beginning tonight.
Published February 12, 2021

Here we go again: Another night, another weird stretch of being unable to sleep. What gives? It’s not like you downed 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—ruminating on 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 national survey, 43% of adults said stressful thoughts had kept them up in the previous month—and that was before a pandemic sent the world sideways.

Until someone invents an off button for the human brain, a spirit of 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, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and 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 volunteers 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 volunteers 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, a family physician in Charlotte, North Carolina. “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. (You can find Headspace meditations developed for bedtime right in the WW app.) 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 are still keyed up from a long day spent at your desk, or you feel antsy and full of energy after watching a suspenseful 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 that sleepytime is nigh.
  • 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: Whereas a sweaty, heart-pumping cardio sesh right before bedtime could work you up and make sleep more challenging, gentle movement like forward folds or twists may help your body relax and power down into snooze 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 obligations, evening might feel like the only time of the day—or, night—when you’re able to do what you want to do. (And yes, vegging out on the sofa scrolling through Instagram is a valid activity.) That can make sleep seem like the last thing you want to prioritize.

Dr. May’s recommendation: 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 nighttime activities to earlier in the day. One trick for doing so? Bundle them with other pursuits. For instance, maybe you could enjoy a catch-up phone call with your friend while prepping dinner. Or fire up your favorite podcast during your morning elliptical 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 p.m., a 10:00 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 prioritize 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!

Some additional advice is implied there, too: Make sure your sleep environment is actually set up for a restful experience. Sneaky sleep saboteurs can include street lights bouncing off the walls, too much or too little noise, and a thermostat cranked to an overly warm setting.

2 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 ZZZs every night. Even when you have a solid sleep strategy hammered 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 snooze strategies handy for the next time you need them.


Alice Oglethorpe is a freelance journalist in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Real Simple, O The Oprah Magazine, Prevention, Men’s Health, Self, Shape, Fitness, Better Homes and Gardens, and many other publications.