Ask a Therapist: What Can I Do to Sleep Better and Feel Less Stressed?

Sleep trouble and high stress often go together.

Verywell / Catherine Song

In the “Ask a Therapist” series, I’ll be answering your questions about all things mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about a life situation, or simply looking for a therapist's insight, submit a question. Look out for my answers to your questions every Thursday in the Healthy Mind newsletter.

Our Reader Asks

During the pandemic, I have been feeling so stressed out that I can’t sleep. And I realize that not sleeping also makes it harder to manage stress. I’m not stressed out about one thing in particular. I’m just stressed about everything. I’m exhausted during the day. And I feel like I can’t get much done. What can I do?

Amy's Answer

What you’re describing is a common problem—especially during the pandemic. Stress leads to sleep difficulties, and sleep difficulties lead to more stress. It’s a tough cycle to break. And you might wonder which issue to tackle first. Fortunately, you can work on both at the same time.

Talk to Your Doctor

First things first, though. Talk to your physician to see if you have any underlying health issues that may be impacting your ability to sleep. Your physician may want to conduct a sleep study or perform some tests to ensure a medical issue isn’t to blame.

Work on Good Sleep Hygiene

It’s important to take a look at the unhealthy habits that may be interfering with a good nights’ rest. Sometimes small changes (or even one change) can go a long way toward helping you sleep better. Here are some things that can help:

  • Don’t sleep with your phone in your room. As tempting as it may be to use your phone as your alarm clock or to scroll through social media when you can’t sleep, keeping your phone nearby might interfere with your sleep.
  • Eliminate screen time before you go to bed. Watching TV in bed or reading articles on your laptop might be keeping you awake. The light emitted from screens can interfere with your brain’s melatonin production and wreak havoc on your sleep schedule.
  • Don’t work from bed. Whether you’re typing reports or paying bills, working from bed may cause your brain to associate your bedroom with stressful activities.
  • Don’t consume caffeine late in the day. When you’re tired, you might be tempted to turn to caffeine to stay awake during the day. But that can make it harder to sleep at night.
  • Don’t allow yourself to sleep in on days off. Sleeping in late whenever you can might seem like a good way to catch up on sleep. But it’ll cause more sleep problems in the long run as it throws off your body’s sleep/wake times. Try to establish a consistent sleep schedule, and stick to it (even on your days off).
  • Get exposure to light during the day. Whether you go for a walk outside at lunchtime or you sit near a window, getting exposure to natural light during the day can be good for your brain. And it may help you sleep better.

Practice Good Self-Care

As you tackle your sleep issues head-on, work on managing your stress the best you can. Getting plenty of exercise and eating a healthy diet are two good places to start.

Since you said your stress level increased during the pandemic and you aren’t sure why, you may want to limit your media consumption.

Watching news stories about death tolls and reading articles that predict an economic collapse will keep you in a heightened state of alert. This may be taking a serious toll on your mental health—and your ability to sleep.

Consider getting your news once a day at a set time—like first thing in the morning or once in the evening.

And be aware of the tendency to scroll through social media mindlessly. You might find that checking your social media accounts is also adding to your distress.

Incorporate Healthy Stress Relief Strategies Into Your Day

Build some time into your day for healthy stress relief. Experiment with different strategies to see what works best for you. Yoga, meditation, journaling, and deep breathing are just a few examples of relaxation activities that might help you feel calmer.

There are a lot of apps out there that can help you find stress relief as well (such as those that offer guided meditations). 

The key is to build time into your day to focus on calming your brain and your body. This is especially important when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Seek Professional Help

If your efforts to improve your sleep or reduce your stress don’t help, talk to a licensed mental health professional.

You might be wondering how talking to someone will help you feel better, but cognitive behavioral therapy has been found to be an effective way to help people sleep better and manage their stress more effectively.

If you don’t want to see a therapist face-to-face, you might consider online therapy. Online therapy services allow you to communicate with a therapist via messaging, phone, or video from the comfort of your own home. 

By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.