For years, I was one of those lucky people who could fall asleep in a snap — at any time, any place, and shortly after my head hit the pillow. I know, I know… If you’ve ever struggled with sleep, this niche brag is annoying AF.
But don’t worry, dear reader — you’ve already been avenged. Last year, some particularly stressful things came up in my life and work, and I suddenly found myself unable to conk out the way I once had. Many nights, I’d snuggle into bed, only to find my mind racing about my to-dos and what-ifs. Often, this overthinking would prompt me to get up and re-open my laptop to add one last reminder to my calendar. Then I’d have to climb back into bed and re-start the tricky process of nodding off from scratch.
I knew I desperately needed to find a fix — in part, because I really felt it when I didn’t get enough sleep — I was way more emotional, which just made my stressful situation worse. All this made me want to write a story about sleep and stress. I reached out to several experts throughout the year to try to find some way to return to my eight-hour-a-night bliss, while hopefully gleaning tips that would also help others going through something similar.
Overall, I learned the gritty, real impacts of stress on sleep, and some key tips for creating a life and environment more conducive to nodding off. Here’s what I found in my research, and some tips that actually helped me get some much-needed Zs.
Add shots of joy into your night life
When we’re stressed about something, it causes cognitive arousal that gives our brain signals that it needs to be alert and awake, even if we consciously want to get some shut-eye, says Seema Khosla, MD, the medical director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep.
This juxtaposition can keep us awake (or even rouse us in the middle of the night), and cause even more stress because we’re additionally now worried we won’t be well-rested tomorrow. The next day, we might be slower because we’re tired — then we have even more to be concerned about about the following night. It’s a vicious cycle, but there are things you can do.
The first is just noticing and acknowledging that stress is impacting your sleep, versus staying lost in your tense thoughts. One way to train your brain to notice these kinds of traps is through mindfulness — I recommend the Healthy Minds app if you’re new to it or are skeptical about meditation. It helps you reframe the idea of mindfulness. It's not really about trying to totally clear your mind (which many might write off as boring), but being more aware of what’s going on in your own head so you can see if it’s serving you.
“It’s important to understand that some stress is never going to go away, but we need to think about our reactions to the stress in our life and how we cope with it,” Dr. Khosla says. She says it’s worth asking ourselves: do I have underlying, untreated anxiety that’s causing my racing thoughts? Is there a way I can eliminate my day-to-day stressors or at least any reminders of them before bed? An example of the latter might be removing your laptop from your bedroom if you work from home, or putting your phone on the charger across the room, instead of where you can reach it while you’re lying down.
And of course, if your sleep issues continue, seek a professional’s help, as something bigger could be going on that a doctor or mental health professional could help you overcome.
Another way to help fight stress before bed and in general, though, is to add little shots of joy into your nightlife, says Vibay Chandran Weisbecker, a mindfulness coach who does technical program management for Mindbody, which does research and has data on fitness and wellness studios around the world. One easy way to do this is by just asking yourself as you drift off: "What is one thing tomorrow that’s going to bring me joy?" he says. "This may reduce stress and give you a reason to get out of bed and feel passionate the next day, making you more ready to go to sleep." You can also infuse these joy shots throughout the day by finding small ways to connect with things you love, whether that's taking a short walk or calling your best friend while you commute. You can also try this by checking out the BIG JOY Project — created by top happiness researchers at Harvard, UC Berkeley, and 15 other universities — which involves trying a different happiness-triggering micro-act for seven minutes a day for seven consecutive days, and then working to continue any of the practices that you enjoyed on a regular basis.
Winding down for the win
This tip you’ve definitely heard before, but having a "wind-down routine" is a classic for a reason. Having a bedtime routine (ideally one that doesn’t involve any screens) is helpful because, depending on what it entails, it can get you excited about going to sleep, versus feeling full of dread.
A solid routine might involve peaceful activities you can look forward to, whether that’s reading, listening to music or an audiobook (ideally with your phone facing down to avoid the light), meditating, snuggling with a partner or child, journaling, or practicing gratitude. Write down your planned, ideal wind-down routine for a night when you’re not super tired, and an abridged version for evenings you're feeling like a zombie.
For my new and improved routine, I’ve been trying to read a chapter of a book and then fill out my Five Minute Journal (which involves a short gratitude practice, asking me to think about the good things that happened to me in the last 24 hours, big and small). But when I’m beat, I just read one paragraph and do the journal, which usually leaves me thinking about the positives versus negatives in my life.
Having a routine we look forward to (so we'll actually do it, versus scrolling social media for hours) helps because "respecting our circadian rhythms means creating consistency." And yet, so many of us don't even look forward to going to sleep or and find ourselves engaging in bedtime revenge procrastination and other avoidance behaviors. “It’s like how none of us want to go to the dentist if we know we have to get a filling," Dr. Khosla says. "None of us want to do something we struggle with, including going to sleep. We have this natural reaction of avoidance that can make things worse and increase anxiety. That’s why it’s important to ask yourself: ‘why don’t I want to do this? What are my behaviors? Should I be off my devices?'"
And if we find it hard to keep routines, remember, it really doesn’t have to be complicated, Dr. Khosla adds. It could just be as easy as washing your face, brushing your teeth, and petting your dog before bed, she says. Just make sure it's "something relaxing that tells your brain that it’s time to start preparing for sleep," she says. "We can’t expect our brains to go from 90 miles an hour to zero in no time at all — they don’t work that way.”
If you can’t ditch the screens totally, don’t panic
You know that avoiding screens is a key to better, easier sleep, but maybe you can’t totally unplug due to your reality and responsibilities. In that case, it’s best to at least try to limit specific kinds of screentime that can be triggering. For example, can you avoid opening your email app, in favor of just texting people who might need you around your bedtime? Can you do the NYT Crossword puzzle app but avoid social media and news outlets? Can you turn off the TV in favor of listening to a podcast?
“In the last few years, it’s become even more prevalent that a lot of people will watch a certain news station or go on TikTok before going to bed, causing them to have terrible insomnia,” Dr. Khosla says. So, if you must be on screens, try to interact with media that won't jack up your emotions, she says. Rather than watching the news or a Late Night clip that will get you riled up about the state of the world, try a sitcom rerun on Netflix.
All this is to say, be specific.
You can also try to use technology to block technology, locking yourself out of certain apps and a specific time at night. You can also set alarms on your phone that signal it’s time to put it and your laptop across the room.
You can also turn away tech in unsuspecting ways. If you have a physical alarm clock, turn it to the side so you can’t glance easily at the exact time as you are drifting off. "Clock counting” is real, especially in the world of sleep trackers that can make us overthink if we're getting enough sleep, knowing exactly what time it is might not be helpful.
Chill out your space
This may seem obvious to some but on all the vacations I’ve been lucky enough to take in my life, I’ve slept so much more easily and soundly. Turns out I'm not alone, says Chandran Weisbecker. In fact, 68 percent of people surveyed said they slept better when they were on vacation, according to 2022 research by OnePoll and Mattress Firm. TBH, I'm almost surprised it's not more.
But — aside from vaca in general being a mechanism for stress relief — I chalk part of this holiday bliss up to the fact that people can relax more when they're in a different, fun environment (one that's often tailored for sleep by the hotel Gods). Not only are most hotel beds hella comfy with incredibly clean, cozy, and crisp sheets and comforters, but many of the rooms are engineered around helping guests get a good night's sleep.
And there are ways that we can bring that energy home with us to improve our bedroom vibes, which can help with sleep, especially in an era of working from home, when our bedrooms might double as our home offices, Dr. Khosla says. “Now, you have to be much more intentional about your environment," she says.
There are ways to make our sleep environments more welcoming, whether that's bringing in hotel vibes or just moving a reading lamp and deskside table near our bed so we can be set up for our nightly routines.
Irisha Steele, formerly spa and wellness director at the boutique The Farmhouse Inn, recommends bringing the cozy vaca vibes to you by applying a classic hotel trick: turn down the heat a bit. "Most hotels keep rooms on the colder side because it's typically easier to sleep in a slightly colder environment, where you need blankets to cozy up in," she says. "You can use this spirit of coziness to cuddle up in bed while having some warm, calming tea — maybe with lavender or ginger — before bed." It also helps to keep the sleeping environment as tidy as possible, or at least to reduce clutter in your eye line as you're in bed. "Your room should feel like a sanctuary," she says.
She knows this well. When she first started working at the Farmhouse Inn, she got to actually live there for a while, and the sleep vibes were immaculate, thanks to heated floors, cozy beds, deep bathtubs and steam showers to relax in before bed. Of course, you don't need to do a total remodel of your home, but you can sure buy tea and take a calming shower before bed.
Other ways to make your bedroom feel like a getaway: Dr. Khosla recommends blackout curtains and rain sounds or white noise to help you drift off and drown out both noise and worry.
Don't be too hard on yourself
In the end, some of these general tips might work for you and some might not. Experiment to see what works for you, and see an expert if you think you need it. "I kind of hate to tell people absolute rules — everyone is so different," Dr. Khosla says. That's why when she's working with patients who struggle with sleep, she tries to tailor the advice to the person.
As a last rule, I'll leave you with this: don't beat yourself up at bedtime. "Above all, be kind to yourself," Dr. Khosla says. "No one sleeps well every single night. Tomorrow is another chance to get it right."