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Can't Sleep? Here's How to Fall Asleep Fast

In this article, learn why you can’t sleep and about the best mindfulness practices to help you get to sleep more quickly and to stay asleep through the night.

You may feel exhausted, but there are just those times when no matter what you do, you simply can’t sleep. It’s a scene far too familiar for many of us:

You, lying in bed, wide awake, tossing and turning, painfully aware of the hours ticking by.

The more time passes, the more stressed you feel that you’re still not asleep and about how tired you’ll feel the next day. And this just makes you more worried and anxious…and even less likely to fall asleep. Around and around it goes.

Sleep Better Tonight

Cory Muscara

Tips for Deep Sleep

Talk · 11 mins

Why Can’t I Sleep?

When you’re up in the middle of the night, it might feel like you’re the only living soul still awake—but you’re not. Nearly a quarter of American adults report a problem sleeping. The reasons range from conditions that interfere with breathing, causing sleep apnea, snoring and restless sleep, to nervous tension in the body and unconscious fears that arise in slumber.

One of the most common sleep problems is insomnia—when you can’t fall asleep or you wake up and can’t get back to sleep. More than 30% of people struggle with occasional insomnia, and 10% suffer from a chronic condition.

If we’re all so tired, why can’t we just go to sleep?

The body and mind need one thing in order to fall asleep and stay asleep: relaxation. Deep relaxation. Anything that interferes with that state keeps us awake.

Often, restlessness starts in our heads. When we’re busy or worried, it can be difficult to “turn off” the thinking brain enough to allow the body’s natural relaxation response to kick in. Stimulation from caffeine, sugar, nicotine, alcohol, or from electronics can also interfere with the body’s sleep cycle. And pain or illness, or in some cases, too much sleep, can also keep evening rest out of reach.

Whatever the cause of a sleepless night, worrying about your lack of sleep only fuels anxiety and stress and pushes the possibility of relaxation further away.

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How to Go to Sleep

Insufficient sleep is considered a public health epidemic, one that’s been made worse over the past two years by stress resulting from the COVID pandemic.

Fortunately, there’s also been a lot of research and experimentation about how to improve our collective sleep. Here are some proven ways/research-backed techniques to help you get the sleep you need.

Racing Thoughts? Try Writing Them Down

Our brains are solution machines: always analyzing, interpreting, remembering, solving problems, rehashing the actions of the past, and planning for the future. Usually, all this hard-mental work means that by bedtime, our minds, as well as our bodies, are ready for a well-deserved and restorative break. (Cue: Yawning.)

But every once in a while, the thinking brain goes into overdrive, staying on the job long after the rest of the body has clocked out.

Research indicates that journaling may help counter a restless mind at bedtime. Recording your thoughts is a powerful way to get them out of your head to where you can see them more clearly. It also reassures your mind that an important memo won’t be forgotten and allows it to take its rest.

How to do it:

Take a few minutes before you turn off the lights to jot down some notes about your day: an encounter, a memory that stuck with you, an idea, or something from your to-do list that you didn’t get around to. Whatever mental leftovers you have, write them down.

Here are some other tips for nighttime journaling:

  • Keep it brief. Bedtime isn’t the right moment to deeply reflect on the past or to try and figure out your future. Just take 5-10 minutes to note anything still on your mind from the day.
  • Don’t worry about trying to write “well.” This is only for your eyes.

Breathing Techniques

Counting sheep may not be the cure for sleeplessness that our childhood lullabies promised, but counting your breath might be. Research shows that practicing slow, controlled breathing can help shift the mind and body out of hyper-arousal and make it more conducive to sleep.

Here are some options to try:

Extend the exhale

Try a 1:2 ratio to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows us to relax and sleep.

How to do it:

  • Breathe naturally for a few cycles, taking the same amount of time on the inhale as the exhale and just noticing the air moving in and out of your body.
  • On the next round, breathe in naturally, and extend the exhale by 1 or 2 seconds. So, if you inhale for 3 counts, exhale for 4 or 5.
  • Do this a few times, gradually increasing the exhalation up to twice as long as the inhale.
  • Find a rhythm that feels comfortable and increasingly relaxing. If you find yourself gasping, reduce the length of the exhale.
  • Do this for a few minutes.

Box Breathing

In this technique, which is also useful for anxiety, you create a “box” of same-duration inhalation, holding, and exhalation.

How to do it:

  • Do a few cycles of natural breathing.
  • When you’re ready, inhale for 4 seconds. At the top of your inhale, hold your breath for 4 seconds. Then slowly exhale for 4 seconds.
  • Try it a few times, and if at any point you feel breathless, play with duration until you find a comfortable rhythm.
  • Repeat for up to 8 full cycles.

Hands on Body

This awareness technique uses the breath and the body as anchors to guide our attention inward.

How to do it:

  • Place one hand on your heart area and one on your lower abdomen. Breathe naturally for a few moments.
  • Begin to slow your inhalation, feeling the air fill your lungs and diaphragm and noticing your hand rises with the motion.
  • Slowly exhale, and with your hand as an anchor, notice how your diaphragm and chest deflate.
  • Continue at your own pace, inhaling and noticing, and then exhaling and noticing.
  • When you feel deeply relaxed, you can let your hands fall by your sides.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Often we hold tension in our body without knowing it. And tension in the body is a sure formula for keeping you awake at night. Try this technique to systematically relax each area of your body.

  • Lying on your back, close your eyes and mentally scan your body. Take a few relaxed breaths.
  • Starting at your feet, inhale for about 5 seconds while tensing all the muscles there: curl your toes, clench your arches, tense the tops and your ankles. On the last count, exhale and release all the tension at once.
  • Rest for a few breaths, noticing any sensation in your feet.
  • Moving on, inhale again for a count of 5 while you tense your lower legs: flex your feet to activate your calves, tense your knees, and then exhale and release.
  • Again, just rest for a few breaths and notice.
  • Continue like this, inhaling for a count of 5 while tensing an area of your body, and then, on the exhale, release that tension completely. Rest between sets, just noticing any sensation. Progressively tense and release your: thighs, buttocks and hips, genitals, abdomen and stomach, chest, arms, neck and shoulders, and face.

Trust Your Body

Sleep is a basic biological need that ensures vital functions, such as tissue repair, growth, memory storage, and much more can happen. And like respiration and digestion, sleep is an action of the autonomic nervous system. This means that your body knows how to do it, and when to do it, on its own. When you’re lying awake, worrying about not getting enough sleep and feeding anxious thoughts, it can help to remember:

My body knows how to sleep. My body is designed to sleep. My body will take care of itself and get the sleep it needs.

Trusting your body also means that if, one night, you don’t get the amount of sleep you’d like, you can be sure that your body will eventually find its rest.

Still Can’t Fall Asleep? Get Out of Bed

Every once in a while, we need to concede that we’re not going to win the struggle with sleep from our comfy beds. Our mind is too ramped up, and our body has followed its signal by increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, making relaxation out of the question. At this point, your best course of action might be to get up.

Instead of jumping up and turning on the lights, try to keep a restful environment, moving quietly and slowly as you make your way to:

  • the floor to do some gentle stretching or yoga
  • a chair or couch where you can sit and do a calming activity like knitting
  • another room that feels more relaxing, maybe to do some light reading

The physical act of getting up and moving and interrupting the spin-cycle of your tired mind might be enough to discharge restless energy and tension, allowing a more relaxed state where sleep is possible.

Can’t Get Back to Sleep?

The only thing worse than not being able to fall asleep is when you do and then wake up, completely alert, and spend the next frustrating hours trying to get back to sleep. All the methods to fall asleep are useful when you wake up from sleep.

  • Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation
  • Do a breathing exercise
  • Try a few gentle yoga poses
  • Get out of bed

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Micro Practice · 60 sec

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

A mindfulness technique to reduce bodily tension.

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Create a Pre-Sleep Routine to Sleep Well

Setting the right mood for sleep can go a long way toward helping your body and mind to relax and let sleep happen naturally.

Try these tips:

  • Establish and stick to a regular wake and sleep schedule
  • Eat earlier to prevent digestion-related sleep disruptions
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Do a few gentle stretches or yoga poses before bed
  • An hour before bedtime: dim lights, turn off electronics, and do quiet activities like laundry
  • Cool your bedroom
  • Eliminate noise or light sources that might wake you
  • Journal any remaining thoughts from your day

Other ways to help you support healthy sleep:

  • Take a warm shower at night
  • Harness the relaxation power of essential oils, such as chamomile, lavender, bergamot, and Ylang-ylang
  • Read instead of watching TV
  • Drink herbal tea
  • Do self-massage on your hands and feet

Sleep Better Tonight

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