Street noise. Caffeine. The tapping of the furnace. Worrying about tomorrow’s meeting.
These are all things that can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
When you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP) who processes the world in vivid detail, these sleep barriers can become even more magnified.
Everything from the temperature of your bedroom to the texture of fabrics or an unresolved conflict from the day can keep you tossing and turning all night.
While sleep is essential for everyone, it’s imperative for HSPs to get enough Zzz’s every night.
It allows you to process the details of your day, along with any intensified emotions.
If you’re an HSP, you may struggle to fall asleep for the very same reason you need it most: your heightened senses.
Don’t fret! There are plenty of ways you can reclaim your relationship with sleep to feel your very best.
Let’s back up for a minute to understand the depths of being an HSP.
The highly sensitive trait, scientifically known as sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), effects 15 to 20 percent of the population, according to Elaine Aron’s bestselling book, “The Highly Sensitive Person.”
Because HSPs have an overactive nervous system, they’re more aware of subtleties in their environment.
For instance, they may be:
- easily startled by loud noises
- overwhelmed by crowds
- rattled by change
- bothered by things like itchy clothes, bright lights, or strong perfumes
- deeply moved by movies, music, and the arts
- more affected by emotions
According to Bianca Acevedo, PhD, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara specializing in SPS, HSPs show more activation in response to other’s emotions related to empathy.
“Because [HSPs are] processing information more deeply and integrating it, they’re more attuned to things in their environment and other people,” Acevedo says.
Not only do HSPs show empathy activation with pain or sadness, they also feel more rewarded for joy related to others, such as their partner getting a big promotion.
In a sense, an HSP is feeling another’s emotions along with them.
Of course, good sleep is important for everyone, whether you’re an HSP or not.
Sleep supports healthy brain function by forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information. Sleep deficiency has been
- poor concentration
- trouble making decisions
- a lack of control over emotions
If you’re an HSP experiencing the world at heightened levels, getting proper shut-eye is key for processing all the information you absorb in a given day.
A 2021 study by Acevedo and her team found a correlation between rest and information processing.
They observed the brain at rest after doing an emotional task. Those who were more sensitive showed higher activation in areas of the brain related to memory and mood.
“We think that what’s going on for highly sensitive people when they’re at rest is they’re integrating all of the information of what’s just occurred in their lives,” Acevedo says.
She notes that sleep is especially important for HSPs to process data.
“All of the work is taking place during sleep and during prep,” Acevedo continues. “Even taking a few minutes to just relax and turn the lights off and not focus on anything in particular is especially important for highly sensitive individuals.”
While good sleep is crucial for HSPs, heightened sensitivity and awareness can disrupt it.
HSPs may struggle with sleep due to:
- stress and anxiety
- blurred boundaries
- drinking caffeine or alcohol
- environmental factors
Stress and anxiety
While stress and anxiety can affect anyone, those with the highly sensitive trait are said to be more prone to anxiety.
This is likely due to their
Still, it can lead to:
- emotional overwhelm
Because of this, HSPs may have a hard time winding down at night.
They may lie awake thinking of how they felt criticized by a comment their friend made, or overthinking how to handle an upcoming situation.
When the body is in this hyperactive state, there are higher levels of cortisol driving the fight, flight, or freeze response. This can make it nearly impossible to fall asleep and even trigger chronic stress on the body.
Ironically, even exhaustion can make it difficult to fall asleep. Losing sleep can actually make your body less capable of identifying sleepiness.
Many HSPs have a hard time with boundaries.
Whether it’s personal or work-related, they have a hard time saying no and are prone to overworking or overdoing.
This may get in the way of sleep when HSPs don’t allow themselves to relax before shutting off the lights.
Whether it’s answering one last email in bed or overcommitting themselves too often, these blurred boundaries and lack of prioritizing self-care may make it harder to wind down.
This is especially true when HSPs are already taking in so much.
Drinking caffeine or alcohol
There are plenty of reasons to avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed. Even if you’re not an HSP, caffeine and alcohol can still have an effect on your quality of shut-eye.
Alcohol disrupts our sleep cycle, resulting in a
Many HSPs report being sensitive to the effects of caffeine, alcohol, or both based on Aron’s research.
It’s common to wind down at night with a TV show or movie.
However, Acevedo says watching anything that’s emotionally evocative before bed may affect sleep for an HSP. This is because of how they absorb information.
Watching something that involves violence or heavy emotions, for instance, may lead to overarousal. This can make it hard to fall asleep.
Acevedo adds that physical activities like going on a run or doing an intense workout at nighttime can also keep the body in an alert state.
Because you’re taking in so much data from your environment, being in a setting that isn’t conducive to sleep can keep you alert and anxious.
Since HSPs are extra-affected by their senses and easily startled, things that may lead to poor sleep may include:
- street noise
- quality of pillows and sheets
- bedroom temperature
- sharing a bed
- artificial light
While some things are out of your control when it comes to your sleep environment, there are plenty of ways to set yourself up for better sleep as an HSP.
It starts with accepting and acknowledging your highly sensitive nature and learning methods and techniques to work with it, not against it.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep:
- Listen to your body.
- Wind down at night.
- Eliminate stress where you can.
- Create comforting environments.
Listen to your body to inform your sleep schedules
HSPs are highly intuitive. When it comes to getting sleep, listening to your body’s natural rhythms can help you create a sleep schedule that works for you.
Each person is different. So are their sleeping habits, according to Annie Miller, a cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) psychotherapist at DC Metro Sleep & Psychotherapy.
While some people need 10 hours of sleep, others need only 6 hours of sleep. Try not to worry about getting sleep “right,” and instead set a schedule that works for you.
The most important thing, Miller says, is having a sleep window with a strict wake time. This means that no matter what, you get up at the exact same time every day.
With that wake time in mind, you can create a time frame for when you go to bed.
Allow 1 to 2 hours of wind-down time
Having time to relax before bed helps prepare your mind and body for sleep.
For HSPs who require 2 hours of alone time per day, this can be a sacred time for taking space for themselves.
Winding down can consist of activities that bring you joy and comfort without overexertion.
Some examples are:
- light stretching
- listening to music
- watching a calm, familiar TV show
If you choose the latter, Miller advises choosing your content wisely.
Watching the news, scrolling through social media, or picking a violent or emotional show can be overstimulating and impair your ability to sleep.
Acevedo adds that “doing nothing” is also a great way for HSPs to relax their overactive minds.
Tuning in to little details around you, whether it be watching a thunderstorm or sipping tea, can help you detox from a stimulating day.
Whatever you choose to do (or not do), building consistency with nightly wind-down time can help calm anxiety and emotional overwhelm.
Create anxiety-reducing habits
Developing habits that eliminate stress throughout your day can make falling asleep much easier. This is especially true at bedtime.
When you’re an HSP, it’s important to be extra aware of your triggers and implement mindfulness practices that work for you.
Here are a few simple habits for HSPs to maximize their Zzz’s:
- Get out into nature during the day.
- Eat nourishing foods, like those high in healthy fat.
- Create a home meditation practice.
- Limit coffee, sugar, and alcohol, especially before bed.
- Engage in physical activity during the day.
- Take breaks, even if it’s resting your eyes for 5 minutes.
- Spend at least a couple of hours a day by yourself.
- Leave clocks and electronics out of the bedroom.
- Only use your bed for sleep and sex.
- Get out of bed after 20 minutes if you can’t fall asleep.
Miller also emphasizes the importance of using your bed only for sleep.
While it’s tempting to want to read or watch a show in bed, it may keep your brain active when trying to fall asleep.
By developing a conditioned response to using your bed only for sleep, you’ll start to associate your bed with sleep rather than wakefulness.
If your anxiety stems from an overwhelm of emotions, either yours or others, it’s important to find ways to cope.
Journaling can be a highly effective technique for exploring and processing emotions. Even 5 minutes of journaling per day can take the edge off ruminating thoughts.
Breathwork is another powerful technique for helping you feel more in control of your emotions.
Lastly, talking with a therapist or other mental health professional can be a supportive resource to help HSPs feel less alone.
Create a comforting environment
When you’re an HSP, your environment can make or break your ability to sleep.
That’s why creating a sleep sanctuary where you feel comfortable and at ease is essential for getting good sleep.
Acevedo recommends having a sense of home, familiarity, and security in your sleep space. For some people, that might be sleeping with a pet or having friends and family close to you.
For others, it can be keeping a picture of your loved ones near, or having a beloved pillow or blanket that’s meaningful and relaxing for you.
There are a few physical adjustments you can make to your environment as well, such as:
- using a white noise machine to drown out excess noise
- keeping your room dark and cool, around 65°F (18.3°C)
- investing in comfortable pillows, sheets, and mattresses
Sleep is essential for HSPs to process their emotions and soothe their ramped-up senses.
It’s important to be aware of sleep-hindering habits, such as:
- overidentifying with emotions
- not spending enough time alone
- worrying about getting sleep “right”
Know there’s nothing wrong with being sensitive, and that good sleep is possible.
Creating effective habits that cater to your highly sensitive trait will help you feel more grounded and primed for falling asleep.
When you listen to your body, manage anxiety, and transform your space into a comforting oasis, you’ll be more able to drift into dreamland with ease.
Julianne Ishler is a freelance writer, creative mentor, and certified Enneagram practitioner. Her work revolves around helping people live more mindfully and aligned with themselves. You can follow her on Instagram for self-discovery resources or visit her website.