Just from talking to a lot of highly sensitive people over the years, I know that sleep problems are very common among the HSP population. I mean it’s kind of obvious, right? We are sensitive, so it’s not terribly surprising that we are also sensitive to whatever factors can mess with your sleep.
But here’s something else I’ve noticed from talking to a lot of highly sensitive people over the years. Sure, we may have sleep problems in common – tossing and turning because your brain is refusing to shut down, carrying the too-heavy weight of fatigue when you are forced to sludge through the day after another subpar night. But we are not all the same.
There’s actually a good bit of variety in what is causing our sleep problems, and therefore, I firmly believe that – instead of another list of 20 sleep hygiene tips that may or may not have anything to do with your situation – what HSPs actually need to resolve their sleep problems is an individualized plan.
So in this article, I want to help you get clarity over what factors are driving your sleep problems and then choose potential solutions to experiment with to find the ones that work for you. I’ll also throw my personal experiences into the mix to give you an example of how all of this can play out.
TYPICAL HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON SLEEP PROBLEMS
Let’s start by getting clear about your unique mix of HSP sleep problems. Which ones of the following sound like you?
1. INSOMNIA CAUSED BY STRESS AND OVERSTIMULATION
The stress response and the hormones associated with it cause your brain to be more alert. And when your brain is alert… Well, it’s not going to want to sleep.
Since highly sensitive people have a more sensitive stress response, it follows that we are also more likely to experience various degrees of stress, and therefore, times when our brain is too alert to let us sleep.
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 are responsible for the stress response and also play a big role in our sleep cycles.
And that is why you and I end up staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night. Our limbic systems like to throw panic parties, so we can’t sleep!
In my experience, the impact of stress on sleep can be aggravatingly subtle. Yes, I have experienced plenty of sleepless nights after terrible, horrible, very bad days. But more often than not, my insomnia has been caused – not by panic-level stress – but by just being activated a tad too much the day before. It’s not even necessarily anything bad happening. My nervous system can get just as worked up by excitement or newness as it can by worries and fears. And sometimes it’s just an accumulation of little bouts of activation that I don’t even notice until my brain decides that it’s time to turn the lights on at 2am.
2. INSOMNIA EXACERBATED BY SLEEP ANXIETY
When you’ve suffered your fair share of sleepless nights for whatever reason, the insomnia itself can become a source of stress, creating a vicious cycle.
Here’s how it goes down… You wake up in the middle of the night and you don’t go right back to sleep. The clock keeps ticking. And ticking. And ticking. And ticking. And then you (understandably!) start to freak out because you are still not sleeping and you know the alarm is coming. It’s coming sooner than you’d like! This freaking out in turn raises your brain’s level of alertness even further, making it even more difficult for you to fall back asleep.
HSPs are prime candidates for this annoying cycle, because we tend to be a) particularly good at anticipating outcomes and b) conscientious. We know what’s coming to us. The sleepless night will lead to a really shitty day, because regardless of the night we had we’ll keep conscientiously soldiering on with our daytime duties.
I have personally experienced sleep anxiety and to say it was miserable is an understatement. And no, “just not worrying about it” didn’t help!
3. SLEEP DEPRIVATION BECAUSE YOU DON’T GIVE YOURSELF ENOUGH OPPORTUNITY TO SLEEP
Some highly sensitive people are sleep deprived simply because they don’t set aside enough time to sleep. While sleep problems #1 and #2 have a physiological cause (your brain is too alert), this one is more psychological in nature. For a multitude of potential reasons, you either don’t go to bed early enough or stay in bed late enough to get enough sleep:
- You are overcommitted because you can’t say no to other people
- You are overcommitted because you want to accomplish more than is possible in 24 hours
- You are overcommitted because you haven’t yet picked up time management skills
- You stay up too late because after everyone else goes to bed is the only opportunity for you to have downtime
- The siren call of the devices is too strong to resist
Highly sensitive people tend to need more rest and downtime than non-HSPs, but we are also often extremely accommodating and conflict averse. So we might set aside our seemingly excessive need for rest in order to go along with the lifestyles of family members and friends.
Other HSPs might ignore their need for sleep in order to pursue their true interests in life. Highly sensitive people are often full of creativity but stuck in jobs that are misaligned with their passions and purpose. So the nighttime might be the only time there is to devote to activities they find meaningful.
As for me, I went through many years of sleep deprivation before I learned how much rest I actually needed and how much sleep deprivation was negatively impacting my mental and physical health. These were my reasons:
- Since all the experts say people need 7 to 9 hours of sleep, 7 hours in bed should be enough.
- My husband gets by with 7 hours or less, so that should be enough for me too.
- My need for sleep is a lower priority than my family’s needs or my employer’s needs.
(Thank god my thinking has evolved since those days! 😉 )
4. SLEEP DEPRIVATION BECAUSE OF ENVIRONMENTAL DISTURBANCES
Some highly sensitive people are sleep deprived, because something (or someone) in their environment is keeping them awake. This could be a gazillion different things, such as:
- The bedroom being too cold
- The bedroom being too hot
- Your mattress being lumpy
- Your partner snoring
- Your partner tossing and turning
- Your partner’s snooze alarm going off multiple times at the crack of dawn
- Your kids being afraid of monsters
- A family member turning on the lights to use the bathroom
- The sun rising too early
And why would highly sensitive people be more likely to become sleep deprived due to these kinds of disturbances? Well, there are a few reasons. First of all, we are more sensitive. It takes less to wake up our nervous systems and more to calm them back down. And second, we are often too nice and considerate for our own good. We won’t go and yell at the neighbor to turn their music down even if it’s keeping us awake. Or make our partner sleep on the couch. Or tell the kid to go pee with a flashlight.
As for my personal experience with this one… Let’s just say I didn’t need to use google to come up with the bullet list above. 🙂
HOW TO RESOLVE HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON SLEEP PROBLEMS WITH AN INDIVIDUALIZED PLAN
1. GET CLARITY ABOUT WHAT IS CAUSING YOUR SLEEP PROBLEMS AND THEN CHOOSE STRATEGIES ACCORDINGLY
You know those long lists of sleep hygiene strategies recommended by the experts? Here’s a secret nobody tells you. You don’t have to follow all of them! All you have to do is figure out what exactly is standing between YOU and a good night’s sleep and then address those issues.
For insomnia caused by stress and overstimulation:
- Do your best to calm down your overstimulated nervous system before going to sleep. How exactly you go about accomplishing that depends on your unique chemistry as well as the intensity of the activation you are experiencing. Some people are able to reduce their level of activation by engaging in quiet activities like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, taking a bath, or reading a book that’s not too exciting. Sometimes it might be necessary to address and process emotions that have been stirred up in the course of the day. Personally, my activation is sometimes so intense that I have to expel the extra energy by getting on the treadmill and running it off. I know that exercising right before bed goes against the advice of every single sleep expert ever, but I guess my nervous system didn’t get the memo and I’m just going to keep doing it because it works. 🙂
- Avoid chemicals that mess with your nervous system. The most common culprits here are alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. For some people, sugar also acts as a stimulant.
- Over the long-term, work on reducing your day-time stress levels. Your nights tend to be a reflection of your days. If your nervous system is activated a lot during the day, then it’s going to have a harder time winding down for the night. I would love to tell you that there is an easy way out of this pickle, but I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions and I hate lying. How you go about reducing stress depends on your individual circumstances and what is driving the stress in the first place. What I can tell you though is that for most people stress reduction happens as a result of some combination of the following:
- Reducing your exposure to stress triggers – this means avoiding stressors that you can control. For example, you might start avoiding a co-worker who stresses you out.
- Increasing your physical resilience – this includes things like rest, exercise, nutrition, breathwork, and other somatic strategies to help your physical stress response stay calm for a majority of the time and recover quickly when activated.
- Increasing your mental resilience – this includes changing stressful thought patterns and belief systems, like perfectionism or people pleasing, and how you perceive and process difficult emotions.
For insomnia due to sleep anxiety
If your sleep problems are driven by or made worse by freaking out about lack of sleep, here are two approaches to try:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia or CBTI focuses on changing your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors around sleep. You can consult a CBTI therapist in person, or if you want to read about this approach, I recommend The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It by W. Chris Winter, MD. Here are a few central CBTI teachings to give you an idea of what this approach involves:
- You should not expect to achieve perfect sleep every night. Normal sleep efficiency is 85 percent, meaning that it’s normal to only be asleep for about 85 percent of your time in bed. So if you are only asleep for 7 out of the 8 hours you are in bed trying to sleep, that’s normal, because 7 divided by 8 equals 87.5 percent. If you are asleep for 100 percent of the time you are in bed, it’s a sign that you are probably sleep deprived.
- Most people underestimate the time they are actually asleep. Especially toward the morning hours, it’s normal to experience very light sleep where you drift in and out of consciousness and might not realize that you’ve actually been sleeping.
- Having a poor night’s sleep is not the end of the world. You have survived it before and you will survive it again.
- You should only use the bed for sleep and sex. Otherwise your brain will learn to associate the bed with things other than sleep. If you are awake for more than a few minutes in the middle of the night, you should get up and go do something else.
- You should get up at the same time every morning and if you have trouble sleeping at night, you should not nap during the day.
- If you have poor sleep efficiency, it can be improved by restricting the number of hours you sleep at night.
While I found it reassuring to learn what is actually normal when it comes to sleep and I have no doubt that CBTI works for many people, some of the CBTI methods ultimately backfired for me and made things worse. What finally worked for me was to…
- Go rogue and remove all restrictions around sleep. I believe that CBTI didn’t work for my sleep anxiety, because my insomnia was originally driven not by unrealistic expectations of sleep or by associating the bed with something other than sleep. My sleep problems were originally caused by stress and overstimulation, too-short of a sleep window, and environmental disturbances (=husband and kids). So by the time I started freaking out about it all, I was legit sleep deprived and putting further restrictions on sleep (get up at the same time every morning and don’t nap regardless of the night you had) made me so tired I started being unable to function at all. Which made me freak out even more. But when I finally banned alarm clocks and removed all other obstacles standing between me and sleep (to the extent I had control over them), the anxiety eased up. I have learned that if I do my part to expel the extra energy my nervous system pumps out and give my body the opportunity to rest, it will take care of the rest. Some nights my sleep is quite a bit shorter than other nights, but the long-term averages are remarkably stable. The easily freaked out part of me stays satisfied knowing that there are no restrictions around rest for me. If I’m too tired to function, I’m allowed to not function and I’m allowed to get rest whenever it’s needed.
For sleep deprivation due to a too-short sleep window
- Give yourself a long enough sleep window. The sleep window is the amount of time you allocate for sleep. What is long enough varies from person to person. But there is both anecdotal and scientific evidence that highly sensitive people need more rest than non-HSPs. On the anecdotal side, I have talked to a lot of highly sensitive people over the years and the vast majority of them have told me they feel like they need more rest. According to Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When The World Overwhelms You ,”HSPs do worse than others working night shifts or mixed shifts, and they recover more slowly from jet lag.” On the scientific side, one 2021 study published in Neuropsychobiology stated that “these results are… consistent with self-report studies finding that those with high [sensory processing sensitivity] report needing more downtime and rest.” With all that being said, the only way to figure out how much sleep you need is by experimenting. You’ll know you are getting enough rest when you have energy to make it through most of the day without dragging.
- Build in time to not sleep in bed. Given that a 100 percent sleep efficiency is a sign of a problem, it makes sense to allow for some time to be awake during the night. For example, if your goal was to get eight hours of sleep, that would call for a nine-hour sleep window with 89% sleep efficiency. Here’s another opinion from Elaine Aron that matches my own experience: “Sleep researchers tend to advise people to associate their bed only with sleeping and to get up if they cannot sleep. But I find HSPs sometimes do better if they promise themselves to stay in bed for nine hours with their eyes closed without worrying if they are actually sleeping. Since 80 percent of sensory stimulation comes in through the eyes, just resting with your eyes closed gives you quite a break.”
- Uncover and address the lifestyle factors and/or beliefs that prevent you from setting aside enough time for sleep. What is keeping you from giving yourself the rest you need? What do you think would happen if you changed your sleep habits? Personally, I have experienced only positive results from lengthening my sleep window. I’m no longer struggling to make it through the day, I rarely feel the need to nap, and most surprisingly of all, I get a lot more done. The more I sleep, the more productive I become. Even if I allocate less time to get work tasks done, I have a whole lot more focus and I work a whole lot faster when I’m well-rested.
For sleep deprivation due to environmental disturbances
Okay, it’s finally time for the sleep hygiene tips! 🙂 If you think any of the following strategies would help you cozy up at night, it’s worth doing:
- Get daylight during the day and reduce your exposure to light in the evening, starting around sunset.
- Use dimmers or table lamps instead of bright overhead lights.
- Keep a supply of print books, magazines, or audio books for bedtime reading.
- Purchase a pair of Blue Light Blocking Glasses.
- Use the Night Shift Mode for your Apple device or search for “screen dimmer apps” for other devices.
- Get rid of all sources of light in your bedroom:
- Clock radio
- Cell phone
- Crack under the door
- Light blocking curtains.
- If all else fails, buy an eye mask.
- Drown out noise
- Ask people you live with to stay quiet
- Use ear plugs
- Try a white noise machine
- Help your body temperature fall by setting the thermostat between 60 and 68 degrees fahrenheit.
- Make your bed comfortable by purchasing a new mattress, pillows and/or sheets.
2. EXPERIMENT AND LOOK FOR PATTERNS
I feel a little conflicted about recommending this, because “tracking” can easily turn into “obsessing” but I have found it very helpful to track a few sleep-related variables over the long term. The reason I know with certainty which strategies work for me and which are either wasted effort or even counterproductive is that I have tried them all for several weeks at a time and collected data on the outcome.
So what’s the best way to track your sleep? Well, that again depends on your personal preferences. There are various apps out there, but I just use Google Sheets to record the following data points on a daily basis:
- Date and day of week
- How many hours I was asleep
- How many hours I was in bed trying to sleep
- What time I went to bed
- Whether anything the night before or the day before may have impacted my sleep
I also track weekly averages of time asleep, time trying to sleep, and sleep efficiency.
Some people use sport watches that track sleep automatically, but I find wearing a watch at night uncomfortable (sensitive, maybe? 🙂) so here’s how I deal with the actual measuring of time asleep:
- When I get in bed at night and start feeling like I’ll probably be ready to fall asleep within the next few minutes, I jot down the time in my spreadsheet that I access on my phone.
- If I wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom or otherwise, I don’t look at the clock. If I fall back asleep pretty quickly, I just ignore that little break and don’t include it in my calculations. But if I start feeling like I’ve been awake for quite a while, I do look at the clock and jot down an estimate of the time when I woke up and the time when I start feeling like I’m about to fall asleep again.
- In the morning, I record the time right after I wake up.
By experimenting with different strategies and keeping track of the results, I have found that the following help me sleep:
- Working on reducing my daytime stress levels
- Exercising at least once a day, but the more the better
- Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and sugar
- Not having any restrictions around sleep or rest in general
- Removing all sources of light in the bedroom
I have found that the following make no difference:
- Watching TV or reading on my phone before bed as long as I’m not watching or reading anything upsetting
- Varying the time I go to bed and the time I wake up within a roughly two-hour range
I have also found that the following make it harder for me to sleep:
- Keeping the bedroom temperature cold
- Some kinds of meditation (the focus required makes me more alert)
- Trying to force sleep to happen within a very specific and narrow window of time
3. FIGURE OUT HOW MUCH SLEEP DISTURBANCE YOU CAN TOLERATE
Ironically enough, I was thinking about how to end this article in the middle of the night last night while laying awake in bed. I don’t know for how long exactly I was awake, but the latter half of the night seemed to consist of very light sleep, drifting in and out of consciousness. And I know why that is. The kids are at grandma’s house and my husband and I went out for a late dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. The dinner ended with a decadent piece of chocolate cake that I do not regret. It was so good it was totally worth any sleep disturbance caused! 🙂
Here’s the thing. If I wanted perfect sleep every single night, I would need to live in a bubble, pretty much completely isolated from the world and all of its potential nervous system activators. If you are not that sensitive, good for you. But if you are, I want you to know that there’s a middle ground. There’s such a thing as getting good enough sleep often enough. Often enough that you feel well-rested most of the time.
With experimentation and watching for patterns, you can learn how much sleep disturbance you can tolerate and still feel okay. You’ll learn to watch for warning signs that indicate that it would be good to put a little extra effort into protecting your sleep for a night or two to catch up. You’ll learn what strategies to implement to allow yourself to rest well a majority of the time. And you’ll learn how often you can let those strategies slip in favor of living a little.