How To Fall Asleep When You’re Too Stressed To Sleep

Deep breathing, figuring out your stress triggers, and setting up a bedtime routine are some of the ways that can help.

Stress can disrupt sleep. If you are preoccupied and restless, you need a new strategy when you hit the sack, said Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cleveland Clinic. "Acute insomnia is super common and can be the result of any life stressor."

Good sleep hygiene practices, such as creating a bedtime routine and limiting nighttime activities, have the potential to improve how well a person rests—even while stress is lurking around.

Read on to learn more about what you can add to your nighttime slowdown plan when you're too stressed to sleep.

Identify Your Stress Triggers

There are a lot of things that can cause stress. Stress can come from daily or weekly demands due to work or family, as well as sudden life changes (e.g., illness or job loss).

Knowing what is stressing you out, or what can stress you out, can be key to getting the rest you need. You may be able to find ways to get rid of any stressors, like asking for help if tasks get to be too much or dropping some of your responsibilities when possible.

And if you're constantly thinking about what's stressing you out, you could write down those thoughts. Research has shown that people may be able to fall asleep after writing about worries that are keeping them awake close to bedtime.

Set Up a Helpful Sleep Environment

Aim for comfortable conditions to get a good rest. Some of the best sleeping conditions include:

A quiet sleeping area is also helpful for sleep. If you're dealing with anything that could be messing with your sleep, "like a spouse who snores or a pet that likes to climb into bed," you'll need to make changes, said Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer.

Even if minor distractions weren't bugging you before, they might be keeping you awake. If sound is your issue, consider using earplugs. If your pet interrupts your sleep, consider getting them their own bed.

Make Lifestyle Shifts

Sometimes, lifestyle changes may help you get better sleep when you’re experiencing stress.

Limit Ultra-Processed Foods, Caffeine, and Alcohol

When they are stressed, people may consume ultra-processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol. All three are culprits for being unable to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Ultra-processed foods usually contain high fat and sugar content, which can keep a person from getting good sleep. Eating these types of foods can result in less quality sleep, but less quality sleep can also lead a person to eat these types of foods.

Caffeine can increase the time it takes to fall asleep and decrease the amount of sleep and quality sleep a person gets. That’s partly because it’s possible to feel alert for four to six hours after caffeine. Additionally, alcohol has been shown to disrupt sleep due to:

  • Messing up rapid eye movement (REM) sleep as well as the stages of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep
  • Causing insomnia
  • Adding to issues with circadian rhythms and short sleep duration (SSD)

Increase the Time Between Bedtime and Eating or Drinking

Having a balanced diet can help with sleep and stress. Choosing foods with enough protein, carbs, and healthy fats (e.g., omega-3s) may lead to better sleep.

But another thing to keep in mind when it comes to foods, drinks, and sleep is when you eat or drink during the day. For example, when possible, save any large meals for earlier in the day. Eating too much close to bedtime or late at night won't help you get good sleep.

Timing also matters for alcohol and caffeine. It’s also a good idea to limit alcohol intake right before going to bed or choose to have your last drink earlier in the day. Also, try to avoid caffeine, including hidden sources of caffeine, after 2 p.m. or even earlier if you're still having sleep troubles after making adjustments. 

What Are Other Sources of Caffeine?

Coffee can be a high source of caffeine, as only 8 ounces may contain from 95 to 200 milligrams of caffeine. Still, many other foods and drinks contain caffeine too, including:

  • Chocolate
  • Green and black teas
  • Cocoa beans
  • Some pain relievers
  • Energy drinks
  • Some sodas

Get Physically Active

A Psychoneuroendocrinology review found that physical activity can help improve the regulation of cortisol, a hormone that plays a role in stress, and the quality of sleep. So exercising, or just being more active in general, may help you manage stress levels and get the sleep you need.

For sleep and stress, doing just a 30-minute workout a few times during the week can be beneficial. Exercises you might consider doing include:

  • Walking, jogging, or running
  • Riding a bike
  • Playing sports
  • Doing yard work (e.g., mowing the lawn)

Keep Screen Time and Evening Activities to a Minimum

Watching videos or playing games on a phone or other electronic devices can be tempting when you’re winding down for sleep. But doing so can make it hard to fall asleep because of the light from the screens

Blue light, which is the kind that comes from electronic device screens, can make the body more alert and think it's daytime. To avoid the effects of blue light, consider moving screen time to an hour or more before bedtime.

You'll also want to limit nighttime activities when possible. For example, if you prefer to exercise in the evening, aim for your last workout to end at least two hours before you sleep.

Establish a Sleep Schedule—And a Bedtime Routine

When stress makes it hard for you to fall asleep in the first place, one thing that may help is coming up with a sleep schedule. Pick times to go to bed and wake up that you can stick to every day but also ensure that those times allow you to get enough sleep every night.

Putting yourself on a bedtime routine can also help send your body signals that it's time to sleep. You can do this by doing calming activities, like taking a bath or doing relaxation techniques (more on that below), right before bed.

What To Do If You Can't Fall Asleep or Stay Asleep

Any of the tips above can help if you have problems with falling asleep or staying asleep, especially having a regular sleep schedule. But there are other ways to help you in either situation.

For example, you can use methods of relaxation for falling asleep or going back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night, such as:

  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • Biofeedback (learning how to control body functions, like heart rate) to help you relax)
  • Progressive relaxation (when you tense and relax different muscle groups in your body)
  • Yoga

Additionally, you'll want to get out of bed if you've been lying there for more than 20 minutes trying to go to sleep or fall back asleep. You can do something non-stimulating in another room, and when you start to feel sleepy again, go back to bed.

When it comes to falling asleep in particular, taking a nap can prevent you from drifting off at your typical bedtime. This can especially be the case if you take naps in the afternoon or evening. But by avoiding naps, you may find it easier to go to sleep and sleep longer.

If you find that you can't go back to sleep after waking up, removing light sources from your sleeping area can also be helpful for uninterrupted sleep later. But if you must have a light—say, because you'll need to get up and use the restroom during the night—use a dim, red light. These lights will be less likely to disturb sleep.

Additionally, making sure that the light and sound from your cell phone are down or off can make for a restful night's sleep.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

Check with a healthcare provider if you're having trouble sleeping at night, you've tried self-management strategies, and you just can't catch enough z's. Sleep issues add to a variety of health problems related to a person's:

  • Cognition
  • Immune system
  • Metabolism
  • Mental health

"Some people wait too long," said Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer. "I've had some patients come in after 20 years of insomnia. A clinically significant problem exists if insomnia lasts more than three months, so call your primary care provider (PCP) if you can't sleep after that time."

Many PCPs have sound strategies for dealing with insomnia. Some may refer you to a sleep disorders specialist or cognitive behavioral therapist.

While people may want a quick-fix sleeping pill, the first thing they should do is make changes to actions related to sleep. "Some people want a way out of doing the work when they haven't done any of the basics," said Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer.

In addition, the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine article found that although sleep medication can be an effective short-term treatment for insomnia, it can cause side effects such as:

  • Amnestic episodes (short-term memory problems)
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Morning hangovers

Also, some people continue to experience sleep problems even when taking these medications, leading to higher doses. The higher doses might cause people to depend on using the medicines later and build up a tolerance to having the medicines help them with sleep.

A Quick Review

Stress can interfere with getting good sleep. Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce stress and get better sleep, like having a comfortable and quiet sleeping area, establishing a bedtime routine, or trying relaxation techniques.

But if you're still having issues with stress and sleep, seeing a healthcare provider can help you figure out what treatments or methods will best work for you.

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Sources
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