Anxious girl tossing in bed

—Clayton P.*, Florida Southern College

Falling asleep when your brain won’t slow down can feel nearly impossible. Here are some of my favorite tips for catching your ZZZs—even with a racing mind. 

Find a stress reliever

Some great stress-reducing options include meditation, journaling, yoga, and deep breathing. Try any of these techniques in the hour before bed to wind down. If you’re feeling anxious during the day, take a break to connect with friends in person and get your mind off things, or use your friends as a sounding board to talk about what’s bothering you. Taking regular breaks from your phone and technology to get some fresh air can be helpful too.

On that note, avoid screens before bed

Try to limit computer, TV, and phone use about one hour before you go to bed. The light from these devices can negatively affect your sleep cycles. In fact, try not to sleep with your phone on next to you. You can put it across the room and keep it on silent all night (don’t worry, your alarm will still work). As for computer use, it might be tempting to study up until bedtime, but it’s best to stop working about an hour before as well so that your brain has time to unwind. Use that hour to take up a relaxation ritual that you can do most nights. Try reading a book, taking a hot shower, or any of the stress reduction techniques noted above.

Avoid caffeine

Try to avoid drinking coffee or other caffeinated drinks at least six hours before bedtime. Caffeine not only interferes with sleep, but also can cause you to feel anxious. Other substances can negatively affect sleep, including alcohol and marijuana. 

Before you hit the hay: Set yourself up for success

male stretching before outdoor run

1. Address any underlying issues

If you’ve regularly been getting bad sleep due to anxiety or stress, you may need to be more active in addressing what’s bothering you. Be honest with yourself when you think about the cause of your anxiety (e.g., poor grades, a difficult roommate, family stress), and actively work on these problems during the day so they don’t keep you up at night. Consider talking to a school counselor or a psychologist to help you deal with these issues.

2. Set up a study schedule

If you have a big exam or project coming up, block out regular chunks of time in your calendar to study or work on the project. Just having that plan in place will help reduce your anxiety and make it easier to chip away at the hefty workload. When studying, remember to take regular breaks so you don’t get overwhelmed or lose focus.

3. Get active

Try to get regular physical activity, ideally outside, particularly if you’ve been sitting and studying inside all day. Being physically tired can help you fall asleep. The activity could be as simple as taking the long way home from the library or class on a busy day.

What if you wake up during the night?

If you can’t fall asleep or if you wake up, try not to start thinking about your worries—it’s counterproductive. Instead, take deep breaths and replace racing thoughts with relaxing ones. Some people fall back asleep when they think about a favorite activity (e.g., baking a cake, walking on your favorite path, sitting on the beach). When your thoughts stray, go back to the relaxing thoughts. 

The morning after

If you wake from a sleepless night (it happens to all of us), treat yourself well in the morning. Make sure you eat something, drink plenty of water, and get some fresh air and natural light. If possible, try to get a short nap in before 3 p.m.

*Name changed

Article sources

Drake, C., Roehrs, T., Shambroom, J., & Roth, T. (2013, November 15). Caffeine effects on sleep taken zero, three, or six hours before going to bed. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 9(11), 1195–1200. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.3170

Reynolds, C. F. (October 2011). Troubled sleep, troubled minds, and DSM-5. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68(10), 990–991. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.104