Reasons You Can’t Sleep and What to do About Them.

You have probably heard the expression ‘we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone’ and it’s true about all the things we take for granted.  Including sleep.  You know all about the benefits of sleep but when you can’t drop off or stay asleep all night, you feel the loss of those benefits.

Here are some of the most common reasons for not being able to sleep and some suggestions for overcoming them.  Talking to your healthcare professional will always be useful so if the problem persists, do this.

  1. STRESS & ANXIETY.  Having an active mind that’s churning over your problems and concerns will definitely stop you from relaxing into sleep.


(a)          If you have specific problems that keep you awake, take some time to write them down.  Use a journal and a good pen to give these concerns the time and energy they’re demanding of you.  Write down what the problem is, how you feel about it, who else is involved and what you think they feel about it.

Think about the causes of the problem by using this exercise:

Write the problem on the left side of a piece of paper.  To the right of this write down the factors that might have contributed to the problem.  To the right of that, write down what might have contributed to each of these factors.  Repeat this a couple more times and then look at your answers.  What themes come emerge?  What might be the answer to the problem?

(b)          Learn to mediate.  It’s much easier than you might think and this simple exercise will not only help you sleep better and for longer but has so many other benefits too.  Read more by clicking on the link.

(c)           Make a list of the things you need to do in the morning. Set it aside and tell your mind that everything is in order and there’s nothing you can’t cope with.

2. DEPRESSION. Like stress and anxiety, people suffering with depression often find it difficult to sleep.


(a)                Journal writing and meditation (see above) will certainly help with this.  People with depression often find it difficult to focus but a little regular practice at both will mean that you get longer periods of concentration.

(b)               Even quite mild depression can cause sleeplessness so don’t be afraid to ask for professional help sooner rather than later.  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (look this up on Google) will be very beneficial.

3.  PAIN.  It’s obvious isn’t it – pain will keep you awake.


(a)                Ask your doctor or nurse about the right combinations of pain killers that might be more effective that either on their own.  For example, taking paracetamol and ibuprofen together is very effective.  ALWAYS read the labels of the drugs you’re taking and get to know which drugs are contained in which brands.  Not doing so can mean you overdose on meds.  If you have asthma, kidney or liver disease take professional advice before taking painkillers.

(b)               Take your painkillers and a glass of water to bed so that if you wake in the night they’re right there on your night stand and you don’t have to get up.

(c)                If you have multiple sclerosis, arthritis, rheumatism or other muscle/joint problems, the correct positioning of your pillows could make all the difference.  Click the link to learn more about this.

4.  DRUGS.  Either prescription or recreational drugs can leave you feeling wide awake when you should be sleeping.  For example steroids (except steroid inhalers for asthma etc) should be taken in the morning as they will keep you awake if they’re taken later in the day.


(a)                Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugary drinks if they could be contributing to your insomnia.  Don’t drink caffeine or sugary sodas after 4pm and either cut out or cut down your alcohol intake.

(b)               Talk to your doctor about your prescribed meds.

(c)                Get professional help to stop recreational drug use if you need to.  Is staring at the ceiling every night worth your drug use?

 5. ALLERGY.  If you wake in the morning feeling cloudy-headed or snuffle and can’t get a good night’s sleep because your nose is blocked, you could be suffering from an allergy to house-dust mites in your bed and bedding.


(a)                Consider buying a new bed.  Beds have a lifespan of 7-10 years so yours may be due for renewal.  Click here for more information on how to know if you need a new bed.

(b)               Look for anti-allergy mattress covers and pillow covers.  Buy the best you can afford and look at internet forums to see what brands others recommend.

6. YOUR BED IS KEEPING YOU AWAKE.  If you sleep better at hotels and friends’ houses, your own bed (mattress +/- the base) may be too old to keep you comfortable and give you the refreshing night’s sleep you need.


(a)                Here’s a quick guide to buying a new bed.

7.  TOO LITTLE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY. OR TOO MUCH.  Our bodies need a balance of activity and rest so if you’re sitting on the couch all day, or in the car driving from place to place, your muscles and brain aren’t getting enough stimulation.  Similarly if you overwork your body it may find it hard to settle down to rest.


(a)                Get the right balance. Even ½ hour walk each day might be enough to get the balance right.  Try and get outside to take your walk and/or run (OK walk at first) up and down stairs until you get out of breath. And keep going a little longer…

(b)               If you think too much exercise is stopping you sleeping, work out ways to reduce this.  Even if you don’t, but you exercise a lot and can’t sleep, consider that this might be the problem.  You’ve got nothing to lose by reducing your exercise regimen as a trial.

8.  TOO MUCH MENTAL STIMULATION.  If something is making your brain buzz and you have specific worries and concerns then look at point 1 above.  If you’re lying awake without specific thoughts going round your head but just can’t switch off, it may be that there’s too much mental stimulation during the day.


(a)                Have a bedtime routine.  Just like you do for a child, have a set time where you switch the TV off, take a bath, change into your pyjamas and relax with a book and a milky drink.  Or whatever routine suits you.  Make a ritual that causes your brain to slow down.  Stick to your routine.

(b)               Avoid TV/DVDs/Video games for at least 2 hours before bedtime.   These will also make your brain stay awake and active so leave them in the lounge and head for bed.  Also don’t have a TV in the bedroom.

(c)                If you still can’t sleep, get up and do something.  Make it a boring task like the ironing or washing up, something that will keep your mind unoccupied.  If you like to draw then get absorbed in a sketch but only if it relaxes rather than stimulates your mind.

(d)               Writing down the things that are racing about in your head might also help – see point 1 about journaling.

(e)               Use white noise CDs (look these up on the internet) to help you relax.  The sounds of ocean waves or whale song is soothing.

9.   YOUR SLEEPING ENVIRONMENT IS CLUTTERED.  Having an untidy or cluttered bedroom can spill over into your mind and cause you to worry subconsciously.


(a)                Go for a minimalist look in your bedroom with soft muted colours and lighting.  Put away the clutter and just have the objects that mean the most to you visible.

(b)               Use black out blinds to make the room as dark as possible.

There may be lots of reasons why you’re not sleeping well and a combination of any of these can make life difficult.  Try the suggestions above and look out for more posts on this site about ways to fall asleep, medicines and natural products that help us sleep and foods that help us sleep.

Elspeth Raisbeck

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