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I have the privilege to talk to lots of highly sensitive people and there are a few topics of conversation that come up again and again.  One of those topics is the degree to which we are tired on any given day.  

Because more often than not, we are tired.  

We might just be a little bit worn out.  

Or slightly fatigued.

Or my personal favorite – tired but wired.

Or we might already be crossing the threshold into exhaustion.  To that lovely state of total wiped-outness…

Haven’t we all experienced the dreaded activity-packed weekend that made us feel physically hungover even though there was no alcohol involved?  The state of overstimulated debilitation for which the only cure is an undetermined period of time in a dark bedroom behind closed doors?

I don’t have the scientific data to back me up, but I’m pretty sure the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.    

Especially for “untrained” highly sensitive people leading mainstream lifestyles, getting through the days can be a tiresome slog, in which feeling well-rested and energized seems like an unrealistic pipe dream.  Something that other people get to enjoy – but no, not us.

So why is that?  Why is tiredness so prevalent among the HSP population?  Why does pretty much every HSP article ever written point out that HSPs need more rest and downtime?

There are actually three reasons: (1) the way our nervous systems work, (2) the way we take in and process information in our brains, and (3) the way our HSPness can impact our sleep.

I want to go into a bit more detail about each, because I have found that understanding some of the specifics about how we are wired can make it a lot easier to shift our self care practices and lifestyles into a more HSP-friendly (and less tiresome) direction. 

3 REASONS WHY HIGHLY SENSITIVE PEOPLE GET TIRED AND NEED MORE REST

1. NERVOUS SYSTEM ACTIVATION

The human nervous system is designed to respond to stimuli from our environment.  Anything that wakes up our nervous system qualifies as “stimulation”.  It could be something stimulating our senses like lights, sounds, smells, or touch.  Or it could be something stimulating our emotions like receiving negative feedback or noticing that a person close to us is upset.  

Everyone’s nervous system reacts to these kinds of stimuli, but some people are more sensitive to it and react to less stimulation than others.  That would be us!  Highly sensitive people!  It takes less stimulation to wake up our nervous systems than it takes to wake up a non-HSP’s nervous system.

This means that, left to their own devices, HSPs’ nervous systems tend to be “on” more than the nervous systems of less sensitive people.  If we don’t do anything to counteract this tendency, we are operating at a higher level of alert or what I like to call the “fired up” state more of the time than they are.  

This nervous system activation is a bodily process, which causes hormonal shifts and other physiological changes.  At its most extreme form, it triggers our stress response or the fight-or-flight reaction, which fires us up with energy for either physically battling a threat or running away from it.  

And that’s why even what others call “normal life” can leave us totally wiped out.  We are “on” more and being “on” uses up more energy.

If you’d like more of the details on how it all works in our bodies, Understanding The Stress Response by Harvard Health does a nice job of explaining it.    And if you’d like to see the scientific evidence for how the HSP stress response differs from the general population, I highly recommend The Orchid And The Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle And How All Can Thrive by Dr. W. Thomas Boyce.

While we can’t do anything about our genetic propensity for a more frequent or more intense stress response, the good thing is that there’s a lot we can do to help our nervous systems stay in the rest-state more of the time.  If you feel like you are “on” so much that it’s sapping your energy, please check out If Your Stress Reduction Efforts Are Not Working, This May Be Why and What Is Emotional Regulation And Why It Matters For HSPs.

2. THE WAY WE PROCESS INFORMATION 

So our easily triggered nervous system is one difference between highly sensitive people and others and a definite factor contributing to our tiredness.  But that’s not all.  Scientists have found that the way we take in and process information in our brains is also different.  The details of this are nicely laid out in Esther Bergsma’s The Brain Of The Highly Sensitive Person: Why You Shouldn’t Judge A Fish By Its Ability To Climb A Tree, but I’ll try to offer a quick summary of the differences here:  

  • HSPs take in more information from their environment.  This applies to both physical stimuli as well as other people’s emotions.
  • HSPs prefer to fully process incoming information before taking action.  This is called the “pause-to-check” system.
  • HSPs have a tendency to analyze the potential impact of different courses of action on other people instead of just focusing on their own interests.  This is called the “optimal-option-ambition”.   
  • HSPs use more areas of the brain when performing a task than non-HSPs.

So basically, our brains take in more information and then they process it more than the brains of less sensitive people.  This, in turn, takes both energy and time.  

So we might get more tired and overwhelmed when we are in highly stimulating or even just new situations.  Our brains are working extra hard after all.    

But aside from simply taxing our energy levels, the processing also takes time.  So many of us need regular breaks away from stimulation just to let our brains take a mini-vacation and catch up.

Now, what can and should an HSP do to counteract these tendencies?  My personal opinion is “not much”.  🙂  These brain differences are what make us particularly thoughtful, analytical, and compassionate human beings.  These are qualities that humanity has needed to survive evolution and that’s why some of us are in possession of these qualities.  Sure, we might sometimes slip into overthinking or people pleasing and those tendencies can always be addressed.  

But in general, my stance is that, instead of fighting our true nature, we are better off:

  • Finding careers and social groups where these qualities are appreciated.
  • Being mindful of how much stimulation we subject ourselves to.
  • Making space for frequent breaks – both short breaks on a daily basis and longer low-stimulation retreats on a seasonal basis .    

3. SUBPAR SLEEP

The third reason highly sensitive people get tired is that our HSPness can impact the quantity and quality of our sleep.  So the reasons we need more rest – the way our nervous system works and the way we process information – can make it harder to actually get that rest, further exacerbating the problem.  

Let’s talk about the nervous system first.  Not only are we “on” more, which causes us to need more rest, but being “on” so much can make it harder to fall and stay asleep.  According to Daniel G. Amen, MD and author of You, Happier: The 7 Neuroscience Secrets of Feeling Good Based on Your Brain Type, “brain imaging work shows that the Sensitive Brain Type often has increased activity in the brain’s limbic or emotional areas.”  These parts of the brain play a big role in our sleep cycles.  Basically, if they are on high alert, then we are understandably not sleeping.  

But the way we process information can interfere with sleep as well.  I know many HSPs (myself included) whose brains like to catch up on processing in the middle of the night.  When you are too busy to make space for them during the day, the thoughts will come at night. 🙂 

And then there’s that tendency to consider the impact of potential actions on everyone other than yourself.  That one will cause you to prioritize other people’s needs over your own need to sleep.  So you stay up too late or get up really early in order to care for your family, friends, or colleagues.  

If getting a good night’s sleep is something that you frequently struggle with, please check out my full article on How To Resolve Highly Sensitive Person Sleep Problems With An Individualized Plan

YOUR NEED FOR REST IS LEGIT

So if you are a highly sensitive person and you ever feel weird about needing more rest than your less sensitive family and friends, please know that you are not alone and that your needs are legit.  And I hope you find some of the resources here at HSP Coach helpful in establishing a lifestyle that allows you to feel well.  

About the Author

Hi, I'm Anni! I'm a life and career coach for stressed out highly sensitive people. My mission is to help you discover your true self and create a life you ACTUALLY like.

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