Why can’t I fall asleep even when I feel physically tired?
Sometimes I am physically tired but can’t fall asleep. How is that possible?
Are you tired, but for some reason you just can’t fall asleep? Been there, done that, stared at the ceiling, and tossed and turned enough times to prove it. But what does it all mean? Why is it happening? And how do we ‘fix’ it?
Known as the tired but wired syndrome, there are several factors that can have a major influence on our inability to sleep, even when we feel physically tired.
Tired VS Sleepy
In conversation, we tend to use the terms ‘tired’ and ‘sleepy’ interchangeably but in reality they signal very different things. For example, a person might feel exhausted, fatigued or ‘tired’, but not be ready to sleep or go to bed – AKA they are ‘tired’ but not ‘sleepy’. Simply put, or as you may have experienced yourself, feeling tired does not necessarily make sleep inevitable.
It is important to know the difference between being ‘tired’ and feeling ‘sleepy’. As opposed to tired, exhausted, or fatigued, feeling sleepy is when you can barely manage to keep your eyes open or keep yourself awake, even dosing off at times. Feeling sleepy is what is called a ‘discriminative stimulus’ for sleep – it predicts that sleep is about to occur.
Between tired, fatigued, exhausted, and sleepy, how are you supposed to distinguish between these similar, yet different sensations and feelings? How do you know when and if you are really sleepy and not just fatigued?
Some signs of sleepiness include, itchy eyes, a lack of energy, aching muscles, yawning and a tendency to “nod off”. While these signs may seem somewhat vague, they are a good indicator that you are not only tired, but sleepy, and as such can be used as a good frame of reference that it is time to go to sleep.
If you go to bed before you’re ready – tired but not sleepy – or before you experience any of the above signs, it will most likely have the opposite effect, which is you, endlessly tossing and turning, wondering why you just can’t fall asleep. This will eventually turn into you over-analysing and obsessing over the fact that you can’t sleep, triggering a vicious cycle of events that may well leave you wide-eyed and awake, not getting a single second of shut eye all night.
Yes, the sleep struggle is real – and if you’ve experienced it before, whether it be on a mild – moderate level or severe – beyond severe, you know just how frustrating and difficult it can be. Not only on your physical well-being and ability to function on a daily basis, but your mental and emotional state too.
Stress & Anxiety
By far the biggest driving forces behind the ‘tired but wired syndrome’, sleeplessness, and insomniais stress and anxiety. While its no secret that this powerful, yet debilitating duo has a massive impact on almost every aspect of our lives (when triggered), stress and anxiety are an absolute nightmare when it comes to sleep or anything surrounding the topic of sleep.
Even if you’re utterly exhausted AND sleepy, a racing mind can instantly activate the “fight or flight” response / branch of your nervous system, making you fully alert, wide awake, and unable to fall asleep.
Whether you’re thinking about past, current, or future events, or even trivial situations, encounters, and things that hold very little importance or significance, these persistent (and often spiralling) thoughts are enough to keep you awake and alert, irrespective of how tired you may feel. The problem is, the more your thoughts spiral out of control and your mind races, the lower your chances are of actually falling asleep.
It’s fair to say that an onset of anxiety and a racing mind is by no means conducive to peacefully nodding off or getting a good night’s sleep. In fact, sleep disturbances have been identified as a diagnostic symptom for several anxiety disorders. Anxiety also leads to increased arousal and alertness, which can delay sleep even further.
As a rapidly racing mind activates the “fight or flight” branch of your nervous system, resulting in you being awake, aware, and alert, Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the best-selling book “Why We Sleep” stated that “In order for us to fall asleep and stay asleep, we need to go in the opposite nervous system direction.” He went on to say that “We need to shift over to the calming branch of the nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system”, and away from the “fight or flight” branch of our nervous system if we are at all determined to change our sleeping pattern and experience a great night’s sleep.
**Tip: If this is something you struggle with on a nightly basis, there are several exercises and practices you can try to set you up for a better and more restful night’s sleep. Some of these include relaxation exercises before bed to quell your stress and anxiety, breathing exercises and techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, guided meditation, and so much more.
Often an increase in adrenalin can prevent you from falling asleep even if you’re tired. One of the biggest barriers to sleep / falling and staying asleep / having a great night’s sleep is when/if you associate your bed and bedroom with a heightened sense of stress and anxiety or stressful or anxious situation/event.
If this is the case, the moment you go to bed, you will experience a sudden surge of hyper alertness and awareness, which will make it impossible for you to drop off and actually fall asleep. One of the main reasons this happens is because you spent an extensive amount of time in your bed and bedroom associating and exhibiting negative emotions and feelings towards your environment and space – the very space where you sleep – that your body now perceives, believes, and thinks that you are in danger whenever you enter the space – AKA your bedroom.
**Tip: Your bedroom should be a calm and tranquil environment, perfectly catered to sleep and rest. From the temperature and lighting to the noise control, comfort of your bed, and your surroundings, everything should be conducive to creating a relaxing space where you can peacefully and easily fall asleep.
In essence, this principal is all about establishing / transforming your bedroom into a space that is purely and primarily / ONLY reserved for relaxation, recharging, and SLEEPING! This means no sneaking of your laptop into your bedroom to answer a few emails or finish off a couple of work tasks. No intensive research (work or otherwise). No late-night YouTube watching (yes, we all know the feeling of going down that YouTube rabbit hole). And definitely no Netflix series binging or movie marathons while lying in bed.
Caffeine & Stimulants
Perhaps it’s time to reconsider that afternoon latte or energy drink. Did you know that on average, caffeine has a half-life of 5 hours? It may come as no surprise, then, that research suggests that even 200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine – about 16 ounces of brewed coffee – 16 hours before bed may impact your sleep.
A 2013 study further reported that downing 400 mg of caffeine 6 hours or less before bed had significant effects on sleep disturbance. For this reason, it is recommended that cutting off caffeine consumption 4–6 hours before bedtime is essential.
Let’s be honest, we all love a good nap. The only problem is, napping at certain times of the day can make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. But, before you stop napping all together, here’s something that will certainly cheer you up – according to several studies, napping is not inherently bad. In fact, napping has several health benefits. However, the issue is less about the act of napping itself, and more about the time you choose to take a nap – the wrong nap strategy can keep you up and alert when you should be getting deeper Zzz’s.
Research suggests that long naps and napping later in the afternoon can not only cause you to take longer to fall asleep at night, but negatively affect your sleep quality, resulting in you sleeping poorly, and waking up more frequently during the night.
**Tip: If you’re someone that particularly enjoys their naps, it is recommended that you keep your naps to 20 – 30 minutes (no longer), and nap at the same time every day. That way your body can anticipate it and adjust accordingly.
Other potential causes of poor sleep quality and quantity, not being able to sleep even though you are physically tired, sleep disturbances, and sleeping problems and disorders include:
- Excessive screen time
- Unhealthy & unbalanced diet
- Stimulants that keep you hyper active & alert
- (an internal timekeeper for everything our bodies do in a 24-hour period) is out of sync
- Other sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome
- Being overtired
Here’s the great news – Once you identify what might be going on, you can take the necessary action to improve both the quantity and quality of your sleep.