Why can I not sleep?


Being unable to sleep occasionally is inevitable.  Whether it’s a one-off, maybe because of noisy neighbours or we’re worried our alarm won’t go off and we’ll miss a flight; or maybe it lasts for a few nights because we’re thinking about work-related things?  Or maybe you’ve been suffering for longer or more regularly with sleeplessness and can’t really put your finger on why? You just know you would like to know how to get a good nights sleep?

Well, our sleep, like us, is totally unique.  So of course, the reasons why you can’t sleep are equally as unique.

In the absence of being able to wave a magic wand or give you one simple tip that will help you sleep better, I’ll take this chance to chat through a handful of the most common reasons I see with my clients and some solutions for how to get a good nights sleep.

Can’t sleep because of ‘Repetitive Negative Thinking’?

As the name suggests, repetitive negative thinking relates to those thoughts that keep spinning around our heads that aren’t always positive.  And when are we most likely to have these thoughts?  You guessed it – when we wake and just as we’re about to go to sleep. 

Of course, these thoughts can be about anything, and can sometimes even include asking ourselves how to get better sleep!  How ironic! 

So what can you do about it?  Well, it depends on whether it’s worrying about the future or ruminating on things that have already happened. Often confronting them head-on can help.  Simply ‘brain dumping’ and writing down what’s on your mind so it’s out of your head can feel quite liberating.  Trying to find time in the evenings to do this, perhaps between about 6 pm – 8 pm is really beneficial. 

Allowing yourself a set amount of time to try to work through the problems or create an action plan of how you’re going to deal with them can help.  Just 15 minutes a day is often all it takes.  Then when you’re laid in bed you can utilise a bit of mindfulness and remind yourself that it’s under control.  Of course, if there is something you can do about it there and then, do it!

Do you find yourself lying in bed at night wondering ‘why can I not sleep’?

Sleep Hygiene

This is another term you may have heard of if you’ve searched for how to sleep well.  It’s a fairly broad term but looks at lots of different factors that all play a role in helping make sure we sleep well.

These include making sure we try to stick to a fairly consistent schedule; going to bed around the same time and waking about the same time (yes, even on weekends!). This helps keep our natural body clock (or circadian rhythm) in check.  

Including some form of routine just before bed can help indicate to our brains that we’re approaching our time to sleep too.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Simply doing the same steps in the same order while we’re preparing for bed every night can be enough. Something like checking the front door’s locked, brushing your teeth, washing your face, and putting on your nightclothes etc.  Making sure that you’re not doing anything too stimulating the hour or two before you’re planning on sleeping can really help too.

Try to make sure your bedroom is as relaxing as it can be too.  I like to give the analogy of a yoga studio.  If you turned up for your weekly yoga class and the room was littered with boxes and clothes strewn all over the floor, you’re going to really struggle to get the most out of your practice as you’re going to be distracted by the surroundings.  It’s really no different with our bedrooms and our sleep!  Our sleep space wants to be dark, quiet and boring! Making sure that your bed, bedding and pillows are comfortable too can make a difference to how well you sleep.

Alcohol to help us sleep and coffee to wake us up

It can be quite easy to fall into a vicious cycle of using alcohol to help us sleep (as it’s a sedative and helps us fall asleep quicker). Then feeling like we need caffeine the following day (as it’s a stimulant) to help get us through the day.  

The difficulty is, our tolerance to alcohol can build. So where one glass of wine was enough to help you sleep, it may not take long before you need two, and so on.  And the more alcohol we have, the more it affects our sleep.  

Although it’s a sedative and helps our sleep onset latency (the fancy term for how long it takes us to fall asleep), it messes up the quality and quantity of our sleep.  Yes, we fall asleep quicker. But we’re more likely to wake not feeling as rested and refreshed as we would like the following morning.

So, we reach for the caffeine to help perk us up and get us through the day.  But again, our tolerance to caffeine builds the more we use it, just like alcohol.  So we can find ourselves needing more and more coffees to keep us going.  

It can be really easy to fall into the trap of relying on alcohol and caffeine to help us sleep and stay awake the next day.

We naturally have a slump in the early afternoon (due to our circadian rhythm). So possibly the obvious thing to do is reach for the caffeine then too.  The difficulty is, caffeine can stay in our systems for up to 10 hours (approximately). So by having a coffee at 3 pm to get us over the mid-afternoon hump, we may have caffeine in our system still around 1 am, which isn’t going to help us sleep.  So we reach for alcohol to help counteract it…you can see where I’m going with this?

Depending on just how much you’re using caffeine and alcohol as a crutch to help you sleep, I wouldn’t suggest cutting them both out immediately, but it could be worth trying to gradually cut down at least (while being mindful that you will feel tired as your body adjusts).

I’ve actually written separate blogs about both alcohol and caffeine which go into more detail if you wanted to have a look!

Do you still want more help to sleep better?

Of course, the above is most definitely not an exhaustive list of why you can’t sleep and the difficulties you might be facing.  But hopefully, it at least gives you a little food for thought.


If you would like to discuss my suggestions in more detail or have any questions, why not book your FREE sleep assessment here. Together we can chat about how I can help you retrain your brain for sleep…because sleep is not a luxury.

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