Well-Being//

How to Quiet Your Mind When You Can’t Fall Asleep

If you’re stuck tossing and turning once your head hits the pillow, these tips can help.

Boy_Anupong/ Getty Images
Boy_Anupong/ Getty Images

There are few things more frustrating than getting in bed after a long, tiring day only to realize your brain isn’t ready for sleep. You know those nights: Despite how exhausted you feel, your mind is off ruminating on tomorrow’s to-do list, your uncertainties about the pandemic, or whatever other worries are real for you in that moment. While you’re in the heat of tossing and turning, sleep can feel like a hopeless reality — but fortunately, that’s rarely the case. There are plenty of in-the-moment strategies that can help us kick our worries out the door so we can get the rest we need and deserve. 

We asked our Thrive community to share their go-to strategies that help them fall asleep when they’re stuck tossing and turning. Which of these tips will you turn to the next time you can’t sleep?

Try a 5-count breathing exercise

“I find that a series of stacked breaths works every time. I inhale deeply for a count of five, hold the breath in for a count of five, and then exhale completely for another count of five. I repeat this five-count until I fall asleep. It works like a charm.” 

—Liz Lehman, Baltimore, MD 

Think back to a joyful moment

“Some of my favorite, most carefree childhood memories happened on my grandparents’ farm.  Whenever I can’t sleep, I trace the steps of walking through their house. Then, my memory turns to them: my grandpa sitting on a kitchen barstool with a cup of coffee and my grandma nearby doing a rosary and praying for all of her family. They’ve been gone for many years, but their memory always calms my restlessness.”

—Stacy Cassio, CEO, Charlotte, N.C.

Write down your worries on a notepad

“My go-to trick that helps me when I can’t sleep is to write down the things that are racing through my mind on a notepad I keep by my bed. I scribble them in the dark, so sometimes I can’t read them in the morning, but simply getting them from my head to paper is so helpful and it helps me fall asleep.”

 —Karen Wolfe, marketing and sales consultant, Westport, CT 

Cuddle with your pet

“I tried many ways to calm my mind at night, but I’ve found that playing and cuddling with my dog works best. Lily knows when it is bedtime. She jumps on my bed and warms it up while I brush my teeth. We play around on the bed for a bit, and then I pet her until my hands get tired and I fall asleep.” 

—Gundolf Meyer-Hentschel, social media consultant, Saarbrucken, Germany 

Read something that makes you sleepy

“When my mind doesn’t give up and keeps me awake, I have a go-to strategy for falling asleep. I turn on my side table lamp, so I don’t wake my wife, and read something less exciting. We all have reading material that doesn’t have gripping tales that will keep us awake, so I’ll choose something I need to learn. Textbooks, manuals, or less exciting novels will always remove my mind’s hurdles to sleep. At least I’ll learn something before sleep takes over.”

—Scott Miller, marketing director, Wilmington, DE

Use a calming scent

“My travel retreats introduced me to the world of combining stimulating aromatherapy with bedtime meditation, and the combination has become my go-to ritual ever since. I use a combination of essential oils like lavender, rosemary and tea tree as I meditate before bed. This ritual soothes my mind and eases down racing thoughts so I can fall asleep more easily. Research even shows that usings essential oils coupled with the meditative relaxation boosts sleep quality.” 

—Vinutha Narayan, global head, strategic initiatives, San Francisco, CA

Listen to ocean waves

“When I have trouble sleeping, I like to play one of two sounds: ocean waves or water droplets. Playing a soothing sound has a hugely calming influence, and coupled with a gratitude list and my affirmations, my mind is always at ease afterwards.”

—Asif Muhammad, entrepreneur and investor, London, U.K.

Visualize your future self

“My mind tends to race at night when I have a problem or situation that I am trying to work through. My go-to strategy for quieting those racing thoughts is to do a self-guided visualization practice, where I envision my future self after this problem has been solved. This exercise helps me to quiet my mind and shift away from my stressors so I can drift off to sleep.”

—Charlene Gethons, meditation teacher and coach, registered psychotherapist, Toronto, ON, Canada 

Put on a sleep mask

“My go-to strategy for quieting a racing mind at bedtime is wearing a sleep mask. The sleep mask forces my eyes to stay shut. I’ve found that when my mind is wandering, my eyes want to stay open which can trigger the temptation of getting out of bed or checking my phone. Keeping my eyes closed with a sleep mask signals to my brain that it’s time to sleep. In dire situations, I will also play white noise like rain sounds and focus on taking deep breaths. These three things together have never failed me.”

—Amal Mehic, process engineer, Syracuse, N.Y.

Give yourself compassion

“I learned years ago to remind myself when I can’t sleep, ‘Worst case, tomorrow will just be a tough day, but I’ll get through it. I have before.’ These reminders often help calm me. I also have learned to do my best to be present and accepting of what is. I put my hand on my heart and say, ‘It’s okay. This is hard and I’m with you.’ It truly helps to shower myself with as much self-love as I can. Giving myself some self-compassion always does the trick.”

—Lisa Kohn, author and executive coach, Wayne, PA

Take a mindful break and immerse yourself in a “Meditative Story” here.

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