It’s 10:30pm. I’ve crawled into bed exactly when I wanted to. The lights in my house have been dimming over the past 2 hours simulating an apartment wide sunset. My thermostat is cooling my bedroom down to a chill 65 degrees and it’s as quiet and calm as it could be. I abstain from caffeine and alcohol, I haven’t eaten in hours, and I’ve put myself in the ideal position for a great night’s sleep. Here I am, primed and ready for the most restorative sleep of my life and my brain is somehow still on. It’s thinking about work, it’s thinking about golf, it’s thinking about improving my already ideal sleep routine. It’s thinking about the stock market and my next vacation. It’s 10:45pm and I’m still not asleep. I’m less sleepy now than I was 15 minutes ago. I’m starting to worry why I’m not falling asleep. I’m counting so many sheep it feels like animal cruelty for the mental space I’m wasting. I’m checking the clock again and it’s 11:00pm. I’m worrying that I’m no longer going to get the full 8 hours I planned to get. I’m in bed. I can’t sleep. Now what?

3 Strategies to Fall Asleep Once in Bed

While all the environmental and behavioral strategies I just listed are great at reducing your sleep onset latency, or time to fall asleep, sometimes it’s just not enough. Sometimes I still struggle to fall asleep within 10-15 minutes which is the average time it takes for someone to fall asleep. And the top reasons people struggle to fall asleep once they’re in bed is worry and stress, or inner chatter. So, today I’m going to detail three strategies you can use to fall asleep once you’re already in bed. Let’s get into it!

1. Relax and Visualize Relaxing Scenery

We’ve all heard about the strategy of counting sheep. If you count long enough, your mind will eventually be distracted from worrying and you’ll drift off to sleep. But studies have been conducted where they’ve split people into groups and had them either count sheep, imagine relaxing scenery, or fall asleep as they usually would. And what they found was that those who imagined relaxing scenery fell asleep on average, 20 minutes sooner than the group counting sheep or the group without any instructions. And the reason for this is likely that counting sheep is too boring to perform for an extended period and won’t distract you enough from your worry. So, should we visualize relaxing scenery?

I think so! I haven’t found a better method yet in the scientific literature or from my anecdotal experiences. So, here’s what I’ve been doing that’s worked well for me. First, once I’m in bed I’ll go through a process of trying to relax all the muscles in my body. I’ll start with my head, jaw and neck and work my way all the way down to my feet. Just relaxing as much as possible. Second, I’ll start to take slower, deeper breaths. And third, I’ll start to visualize some relaxing scenery. For me, imagining myself on the beach isn’t enough. I still get distracted. But what does work is taking myself through my favorite hike. I’ll imagine entering the hiking trail entrance, the sun is shining, the weather is warm, the birds are chirping and it’s a wonderful day for a hike. And I’ll visualize going through the entire hike with all its twists and turns and taking in all the scenery and enjoying the nature. And for me, this has really worked well. Halfway through the hike I’m usually in dream land.

2. Remove Visible Clocks From Bedroom

Next, a big problem is clock monitoring! If you can see a clock from your bed, you’re likely to check it every so often to see what time it is and how long you’ve been in bed. And this can cause you to worry and stress about your time not asleep even more. And another study was performed to test just this. They started out by characterizing participants as either good sleepers or bad sleepers based upon the amount of time it usually took them to fall asleep before the study began. They then split both the good and bad sleepers into two groups. Group 1 would have a clock in their bedroom so they could check and estimate how long it took them to fall asleep. Group 2 wouldn’t have a clock in their bedroom so they could only estimate how long it took them to fall asleep. Meanwhile, an actigraphy was being used to precisely measure when they did fall asleep.

Study Comparing Clock Monitoring Groups (source below)

And what this study found was that the good sleepers fell asleep in about 7 minutes without a clock in the room, compared to 10 minutes with a clock in the room. And it got much worse with the bad sleepers. Bad sleepers fell asleep in about 12 minutes without a clock in the room, compared to 24 minutes with a clock in the room. And in both groups, the clock monitors reported a higher level of worry and much overestimated the amount of time it took them to fall asleep. So much so, the conductors of the study stated, “clock monitoring appears to induce a ‘state’ of insomnia in individuals who do not normally have difficulty falling asleep.” So, we can conclude that you shouldn’t have a visible clock in your bedroom if you want to fall asleep quicker. Now, how do you know when to wake up if you don’t have an alarm clock visible? Like I’ve mentioned before, a sunrise alarm or smart lightbulbs that slowly brighten in the morning is optimal. I have smart lightbulbs set on a schedule and have never overslept on them either. They’re great!

3. Get Out of Bed and Return When Sleepy

This last strategy is one worth using if the first two haven’t worked. Even if you’re imagining relaxing scenery and there’s no visible alarm clock, and you’ve been in bed for around 30 minutes if you were to guess, then it can be best to get out of bed and leave the room. If you spend too much time in bed trying to fall asleep and failing, your mind will start associating the bed with wakefulness which is a hard association to break. So, after 30 minutes of attempted sleep, get up and go into another room. Then perform a relaxing task for at least 30 minutes to quiet your mind and regain the feeling of sleepiness. That 30 minutes could be used for light stretching, reading, meditating, or deep breathing techniques. Don’t eat anything while you’re up and limit your liquid intake to only water. After you feel sleepy again, return to bed and start the process over again. This can be a useful strategy to retrain your brain to associate the bed with sleepiness. And over time, this strategy should become easier and less needed.

Final Thoughts

Maintaining a sleep schedule, managing your light exposure, adjusting your environmental temperature, and creating a sleep sanctuary are all extremely useful strategies to fall asleep quickly. But sometimes, even after performing all these optimal guidelines, you still find yourself in bed with worry, stress, and inner chatter. In these times I’ve found it best to visualize relaxing scenery by taking myself on my favorite hike. I’ve also found it best to remove any visible clocks in my bedroom to prevent clock monitoring. And when both strategies don’t work, I’ll get out of bed and spend 30 minutes reading, stretching, or meditating. These are the three best strategies I’ve found when I’m in bed and can’t sleep.

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.