It’s common to climb in bed and find that you can’t sleep, you’re going to bed hungry, your brain still racing — you’re thinking about your ever-growing to-do list, that email you need to write, the dentist appointment you forgot to schedule — and you get anxious about the mere fact that you should be asleep right now because… well, it’s bedtime! You can’t afford to be tired all day tomorrow and don’t have the time to sleep in. “Why can’t I just turn my dang brain off!?”, “why can’t I sleep?!”, "I’m tired but can’t sleep!” - You find yourself with a growing performance anxiety about the whole idea of falling asleep, and now anxiety has become the reason you can’t sleep, even more so than external problems. Let’s get to the root of this problem. Lay down in the proverbial big leather armchair and let’s talk about your relationship with sleeping why don’t we?
The Cycle of Poor Sleep
If you find that you can’t sleep for no reason, there’s probably... a reason. A lot of sleeping problems come down to expectations vs reality. When your expectation is that you should hop in bed and fall asleep in the first 10 minutes but the reality is that you toss and turn for 2 hours, you can develop anxiety about your ability to sleep. “Do other people function on 4 hours of sleep? Why am I having trouble sleeping at night? Why can’t I sleep? If I can’t sleep will I just die? Should I be going to bed hungry? I’m tired but can’t sleep!". You start to feel like it’s your fault and that you just aren’t that good at sleeping. What you need is a way out of this cycle — you just need to develop your “break out” techniques — the tricks that help you get out of the Cycle of Poor Sleep each step of the way. Picture the cycle like this:
Poor Sleep -> Tired Day -> Mind won’t quiet down -> Self-Inflicted Pressure & Performance Anxiety -> Poor Sleep
Let’s break down the cycle so you can take back your sleep time!
- It Starts with Poor Sleep Quality
When you get poor sleep — whether it’s from your partner snoring, bad dreams, or whatever gets to ya — your day-to-day activities become exponentially more difficult. Pressures to succeed in all areas of your life become seemingly less attainable when you’re struggling to focus on pouring a bowl of cereal. If you’re a sleep-deprived zombie shuffling through the day, forcing yourself through with coffee and naps, this short-term solution might make your ability to ease into sleep even tougher because you’re giving yourself not only an excuse to sleep poorly again (“hey, I can always count on that third pot of coffee, right?”) but you’re contributing to your inability to fall asleep quickly in the evening. If you already can’t sleep, stimulants and naps will only exacerbate things.
- Tired Today, Slogging Through Tomorrow
Because you’ve been sleeping poorly lately, you find yourself slogging through another tired day, your feet dragging and eyelids heavy. You don’t want to nap, because you want to stick to a decent sleep schedule. You need that second coffee to push through but you don’t want too much caffeine because it’ll keep you up later. So what do you do?? There’s a break out point here, but it’s difficult. The honest-to-goodness answer is that you need to push through. Yep, it’s that simple (and also that difficult). If you resist the temptation of stimulants and develop a good sleep routine, you can get yourself back on track. It might take a few days of following a consistent schedule and fighting the urge to take that post-lunch siesta, but if you keep those peepers open all day, you might just keep ‘em closed all night.
3. “Can’t sleep, thinking too much!”
“Why can’t I sleep even though I’m tired? I’m tired but can’t sleep! "Everybody is plagued with a racing mind from time to time. It’s the 21st century and things move quickly! There’s always somethin’ going on, from a personal to global scale, that can keep you up at night. Whether you’re going to bed hungry, anxious about tomorrow’s workload, bills that are due, blowing off a friend’s texts, or filing your taxes… life gets in the way of sleep sometimes and despite how much you’d like to crash right when you get in bed, your brain has other plans. There are things to do when you can’t sleep, like getting out of bed and reading a book or counting until you discover a new number, but calming your brain can be difficult. To discover what technique works for you to break out of this habit, try something new; the air force pilot technique, warm milk, or a breathing exercise. What to do when you can’t sleep will be different for each person but there’s something out there that’s just right for you.
- Performance Anxiety in Bed? Me? Never!
When you find that you can’t sleep, it’s easy to develop a feeling of self-inflicted pressure and performance anxiety around sleeping. It seems counterintuitive that wanting to sleep would make you less likely to do it, but hey, the human brain doesn’t always make sense. Matthew Edlund, author of The Power of Rest notes that “we’ve turned sleep into a job… We think, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to have enough sleep to make everything work.’ [You’re] worried about sleep, so [you] can’t sleep.” This is sometimes referred to as “sleep dread” (which sounds so dire, don’t you think?), but there are ways to overcome it. How do you break out of this habit and calm your mind down before bed? Here are some tips (or things to do when you can't sleep):
- Write a List - If you’re the type of person who worries about how much you have on your plate tomorrow, writing a list can help you relieve your brain of the pressure to remember every little thing. Once it’s on paper, you don’t have to subconsciously recall what you need to do over and over because you know the information exists somewhere safe.
- Wind Down - Take a deep breath, go on a walk, put down your phone, and read a book or do a puzzle instead. Shifting from daytime activities to nighttime activities makes a huge difference in your ability to calm an overactive brain. Take time to create a healthy bedtime routine.
- Less Stressful Evenings - The onslaught of news, FOMO from social media, bookkeeping or paying your bills in the evening… these things all get your brain active — and not in a good, healthy way! Let yourself de-stress after the day’s activities. You don’t need stress hormones roiling up when you’re getting into your PJs.
- Poor Sleep… Still??
If you’re not addressing the issues each step of the way, you can find yourself back at square one — poor sleep. Here you are, another day of tossing and turning, mind still revved up… but tomorrow? You know what to do, what steps to take, and where you can help yourself along the way. So instead of crying “why can’t I sleep?” you’ll be drifting off thinking, “how am I so good at sleeping!” In a world with too many mental and physical stimuli, what do you do? It’s your choice — you can either accept poor sleep quality as a way of life, or you can manage your expectations, slow things down, and take little steps toward better sleep health.
You Can Get Better Sleep!
Remember: you’re not alone here. A lot of people climb into bed tired from a long day only to find out that their brain is still racing. If you can’t seem to fall asleep quickly because of external stressors, what happens over time is that you eventually get anxious about the concept of sleep itself because your past experiences give way to negative internal monologues. You go from “I had trouble falling asleep last night” to “I don’t usually fall asleep quickly” more quickly than you’d think. But what if you managed expectations instead of accepting poor sleep quality as your way of life? You can do it if you take positive actions and find the right things to do when you can't sleep! Sleep well, wake easy.