The feeling of trying—and failing—to fall asleep because of racing thoughts, stressors, and anxiety is something everyone has likely experienced at some point. It doesn’t matter how tired you feel, sleep just won’t come. Instead, you’re left tossing and turning in an effort to get comfortable, calm down, and try to catch some shut-eye before your alarm goes off the next morning.

It’s something Proper sleep coaches regularly hear from customers, and while the solutions they recommend are entirely personalized depending on factors such as lifestyle, age, etc, there are certain tried-and-true, evidence-backed relaxation techniques that serve as a great starting point.

1. Write a to-do list

What to do:

Write down future tasks that you either need to or want to accomplish—whether it’s the following day or that week. It sounds simple (and it takes less than five minutes), but it’s surprisingly effective.

The science behind why this is beneficial:

This practice of setting aside time at the end of every day will help you essentially “close up shop” and prevent any free-floating thoughts from arising at bedtime or in the middle of the night. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, (1) those who wrote down future tasks in a to-do list-type fashion fell asleep faster than those who just wrote down things they had accomplished that day via journaling.

2. Schedule worry time

What to do:

Schedule 15 - 20 minutes of dedicated “worry time” every day over the course of a week—you can even put it in your calendar. Just make sure it’s not close to bedtime. During that specific period of time, go ahead and write down everything that’s stressing you out. Don’t hold back, since getting thoughts down on paper is oftentimes more productive than keeping them bottled up in your mind. Once your time is up, go about your normal schedule. If you find yourself worrying later in the day outside of the designated window, remind yourself that now’s not the time. Easier said than done, we know. But if you stick with it (and be gentle with yourself), you can build the habit over time.

The science behind why it’s beneficial:

While it may sound counterintuitive, scheduling “worry time” can help you control the frequency and timing of your stress response. In official science-y terms, it’s called stimulus control training, (2) and it’s effective in freeing up the mind for other activities—in this case, sleep.

3. Try progressive muscle relaxation

What to do:

Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing a group of muscles as you breathe in for 4-10 seconds, then relaxing them as you breathe out (suddenly, not gradually). Just be sure you’re not tensing to the point of pain or uncomfortable cramping. Relax for 15-20 seconds before moving onto the next muscle group. (3)

The science behind why it’s beneficial:

Stress leads to muscle tension, which makes it difficult for the physical body to relax, which makes you even more stressed. And repeat. And repeat. By engaging in progressive muscle relaxation, you’ll calm your physical body and, as a result, your anxiety levels.

4. Get out of bed

What to do:

If you’re in bed and not sleeping after 20-30 minutes (and not feeling sleepy), then get out of bed to engage in a more restful activity, like reading a non-stimulating book under dim lighting.

The science behind why it’s beneficial:

The act of “trying” to sleep when you don’t feel sleepy engages the body’s sympathetic activation system, which can run interference with sleep.

Note: Resist the urge to get out of bed and onto the computer! The light receptors in the eyes are linked to the time-keeper in the brain that regulates when we sleep and when we are awake (called the circadian rhythm). Since blue light indicates wakefulness, we do not want to confuse this signal.

5. Listen to a podcast, soothing sounds, deep breathing exercises, or guided meditations

What to do:

Tune into one of these 12 podcasts to help you turn off your mind at the end of a long day—included on the list are white noise programs, bedtime sleep stories, ASMR, and guided mindfulness meditations.

The science behind why it’s beneficial:

ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, is a sensation triggered by soft sounds. It originally gained popularity on YouTube, where you’ll find videos of people whispering, slowly and deliberately turning the pages of an old book, typing, or crinkling a bag of chips. It’s a fairly novel concept, which means there’s not ample clinical studies on it to date. However, what has been studied is promising, since it’s been shown to activate areas of the brain associated with calming hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin. (4)

6. Cultivate an evening routine

What to do:

All of the tips mentioned above can be incorporated into an evening wind-down routine, in addition to anything else that helps you slow down and calm the mind, including:

  • Writing in a gratitude journal to focus on positive rather than negative thoughts
  • Engaging in a relaxing activity that doesn't require much thought or energy, like folding laundry or doing dishes (bonus points for the fact that these activities can’t be done while scrolling through social media!)
  • Engaging in light exercise or mind-body movement such as yoga, qigong, or tai chi
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Brewing a cup of chamomile tea, which is rich in flavonoids to help relax the central nervous system and support a better night's sleep

The science behind why it's beneficial:

Excitement or stress prior to bedtime causes an increase in the body’s sympathetic nervous system activation. When this occurs, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that circulate blood to vital organs and muscles.

Your heart rate increases, your breath quickens, your muscles tense, and beads of sweat form as your “fight or flight” response, which evolved as a survival mechanism to enable people to quickly react to life-threatening situations.

When this occurs before bedtime, it can run interference with sleep onset (the ability to fall asleep) and sleep maintenance (the ability to stay asleep) by interfering with melatonin and disrupting our sleep-wake cycle. That’s why a wind-down nighttime routine with less stimulating activities is so important to prevent rumination and support a good night's rest.

When to see a sleep expert

It’s normal to have trouble sleeping every now and again due to a racing mind. But how do you know if the occasional night spent tossing and turning is a symptom of a sleep disorder? When does “poor sleep” cross the line into insomnia? What about sleep apnea? Refer to this list of six signs and symptoms. While it’s by no means exhaustive, it’s a starting point to help understand the potential causes of fatigue (i.e. low energy) and Excessive Daytime Sleepiness, or EDS (i.e. fighting to stay awake)—all of which are signs that it’s time to consult your healthcare provider and/or a sleep medicine specialist for tailored treatment options. In addition to physician sleep specialists, there are also sleep psychologists specializing in behavioral and mental health conditions affecting sleep.