7 Things To Do When You Can't Sleep Because of Anxiety

Here's how to quiet your racing mind—and finally get some rest.

A woman sits in bed and reads a book in a dark bedroom.
Photo: Anna Tabakova/Stocksy

When you have anxiety, you might experience racing thoughts for a number of reasons, such as being stressed about something at home or work. This experience can sometimes lead to insomnia if you're mind is racing with anxiety around bedtime.

Insomnia, or difficulty falling and staying asleep, can have many different causes. Other than anxiety and stress, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, those causes can include chronic pain, depression, changes in hormones, medications, or medical conditions such as thyroid disease, acid reflux, or asthma.

Despite the cause, there are a few things you can do to try to get a good night's rest and calm a racing mind. Watch this video and read below for some simple tricks, such as reading a book or listening to soothing sounds, to combat insomnia.

01 of 08

Make a To-do List

Worrying about future incomplete tasks can cause insomnia, according to this 2017 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The study found that writing out a to-do list of future tasks helped people fall asleep much faster than those who wrote about tasks they'd already accomplished that day. The longer and more detailed the participants' lists, the faster they fell asleep.

Try writing a specific to-do list for at least five minutes before falling asleep.

02 of 08

Get Out of Bed

Staying in bed and trying to make yourself fall asleep may not be the best idea, according to Cormac O'Donovan, MD, associate professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. This may train your brain to associate your bed and bedroom with being awake, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. If you lie awake for more than 20–30 minutes, you should get out of bed and do something else.

"If you're trying to sleep and your brain's not letting you, it could just be that you're going to bed too early," Dr. O'Donovan said. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, necessary hours of sleep can vary for each person. "Everyone is different, and some people's bodies only demand six or seven," Dr. O'Donovan said. If you feel like you need more than eight or nine hours of sleep, there may be an underlying problem and you should consult your healthcare provider, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

03 of 08

Read a Book

Since digital screens can further disrupt sleep due to the blue light that emits from them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reading a physical book can be a great alternative to distract your mind.

It is recommended to read in bed for no more than 20 minutes, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. If you're still awake after that, get out of bed and read somewhere else until you feel ready to sleep.

04 of 08

Listen to a Podcast

Podcasts or audiobooks can be good alternatives to reading if you don't want to turn on a light or strain your tired eyes.

The rules for podcasts and audiobooks remain the same as for books though. Find a topic that's not too exciting or upsetting (lay off the heated political debates and murder mysteries, for example). And make sure to get out of bed and listen elsewhere if you don't drift off in bed right away.

05 of 08

Try Soothing Sounds

"There's not a lot of good research on sound therapy, but it may be worth a try for some people," Dr. O'Donovan said. "I've had some patients tell me they used to live on the beach, and now that they live in the big city they miss the sound of the ocean putting them to sleep."

Consider buying a white noise machine or download an app with soothing sound effects to create those sounds you miss or love, Dr. O'Donovan said. "They might help create an environment that's more conducive to sleep."

A white noise machine or app may even trigger memories of more relaxing times and help take your mind off whatever is worrying you in the moment.

06 of 08

Focus On Your Breathing

Another way to quiet your thoughts can be through simple breathing exercises. "Your mind is surely going to wander back to other things, but the important thing is to keep bringing it back to your breathing, in and out," Dr. O'Donovan said. Deep, slow breathing can also slow your heart rate, which can be helpful if you're anxious or stressed about something specific, according to a 2018 review published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

You can do diaphragmatic breathing while lying in bed. Try this breathing technique from sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Inhale through your nose for about two seconds, feel your stomach expand, then push gently on your stomach as you slowly exhale. Repeat.

07 of 08

Eat a Light Carbohydrate Snack

Certain foods should be avoided before bed. Foods that are high in protein can slow down digestion and mess with your sleep, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Additionally, you should avoid processed cheese, salami, or pepperoni, which can release norepinephrine, a hormone that stimulates the brain.

But eating a light carbohydrate snack when you can't sleep—a small serving of popcorn or whole-grain crackers, for example—may be helpful since it releases serotonin, a sleep hormone in your brain, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

If it's been hours since you ate dinner, having a small snack may also keep your mind off of your empty stomach.

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When To Talk to Your Healthcare Provider About Racing Thoughts

Everyone has a sleepless night once in a while, but if you find that your thoughts are keeping you up on a regular basis, it's time to talk to your healthcare provider. A medical professional can help you evaluate whether any current medications or lifestyle habits are contributing to your insomnia and can also offer some solutions.

Your healthcare provider may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) sessions. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, CBT is a type of therapy in which a mental health professional can help you identify and overcome thought patterns that might be interfering with your shuteye.

Sleep medications—either over-the-counter or prescription—are not recommended as a first-line treatment, and they're not meant to be taken long-term. According to MedlinePlus, your body can become used to over-the-counter medication easily, thus making it ineffective. And prescribed medications, such as Ambien, Sonata, or Lunesta, have a risk for misuse and dependency.

Healthcare providers may suggest medication to help patients get through particularly stressful times but lifestyle remedies and CBT for insomnia should always be tried first.

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