Things to Do When You Can’t Sleep Because Your Mind Is Racing

Here’s how to quiet your busy brain–and finally get some rest.

Why can’t I shut my brain off at night

Insufficient sleep is linked to a host of health problems, from depression to cardiovascular disease. Make sure you’re falling asleep quickly so you can get a good night’s rest. Watch this video for six simple tricks to avoid insomnia.

Make a to-do list
“Worries keep people awake, and they don’t have to be negative worries,” says Findley. “It could also be something positive you’re planning, like a trip or a big event with a lot of things you have to remember.” Spending time during the day or earlier in the evening to sit and address those concerns may help, he says—but if it’s too late for that, grab a notebook and try physically writing them down in a list for the next day.

A recent study found that writing out a to-do list of future tasks helped people fall asleep nine minutes faster than people who wrote about tasks they’d already accomplished that day. (The longer and more detailed the participants’ lists, the faster they fell asleep.) It may seem counterintuitive that focusing on tomorrow’s responsibilities would lead to faster sleep, but researchers think the act of getting them down on paper helps clear the mind and stop rumination, at least temporarily.

Get out of bed
Staying in bed and trying to make yourself fall asleep is a bad idea, says Cormac O’Donovan, MD, associate professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, because it may train your brain to associate your bed and your bedroom with insomnia and worries—which will only make the problem worse over time. Instead, if you lie awake for more than 20 to 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something else.

Read a book—but nothing too exciting
“You can’t stop your brain from thinking, but you can distract it by focusing on something neutral,” says Findley. Since digital screens can further disrupt sleep, he recommends analog distractions whenever possible—like reading a physical book.

Listen to a podcast
Podcasts or audiobooks can take your mind off your worries as well, and they can be good alternatives to reading if you don’t want to turn on a light or strain your tired eyes. You can use headphones to listen without disturbing your bed partner too.

Or try soothing sounds
“There’s not a lot of good research on sound therapy, but it may be worth a try for some people,” says Dr. O’Donovan. “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.”

Download an app or consider buying a white noise machine to make those sounds you miss or love, he says. “They might help create an environment that’s more conducive to sleep.” They may even trigger memories of more relaxing times, and help take your mind off of whatever’s worrying you in the moment.

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,” says Dr. O’Donovan. Deep, slow breathing can also slow your heart rate, which can be helpful if you’re anxious or worked up about something specific.

Try a guided meditation
Meditation and guided imagery can also help some people fall asleep. “The idea again is to focus your thoughts on something other than the things you’re worried about,” says Findley. You might zero in on your breathing, for example, or imagine yourself walking on the beach or floating on a cloud.

Eat a light carbohydrate snack
Having a large meal or a heavy snack before bed can slow down digestion and mess with your sleep, and having too much refined sugar too close to bedtime can definitely keep you awake. But getting up and having a light carbohydrate snack when you can’t sleep—a small serving of popcorn or whole-grain crackers, for example—may be helpful.

Download a science-based smartphone app
Turning to your smartphone may not be a sleep doctor’s first recommendation for dozing off faster, especially because the blue light the screen emits can make sleep problems even worse. But smartphones can offer useful tools for people who can’t quiet their racing thoughts on their own—including a slew of apps designed to play soothing sounds, guided meditations, or calming bedtime stories for that very purpose.

When to talk to your doctor 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 doctor. 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.