The topic of HSPs and zzzs is complex. True, we need a lot of sleep. However, our sleep also needs to be high-quality. Your sleep quality is influenced by many smaller factors, and by one big factor that may surprise you.
In college I papered my dorm walls with posters, including a huge one of a leopard draped over the branches of a tree. I’m guessing I subconsciously craved the perfectly relaxed sleep the leopard was clearly enjoying.
That would have made sense, since I had struggled with “teen insomnia” throughout high school—that awful cycle teenagers endure because school hours make no allowances for their circadian rhythms. I couldn’t fall asleep at my 10 PM bedtime, then felt like death warmed over when the alarm went off at 6 AM.
I vividly remember a sleep-focused episode of Nova (a science show on public television here in the U.S.) that aired in the 1970s, exploring circadian rhythms. I listened aghast as the narrator described a study in which fruit flies (convenient research subjects given their brief six- to- eight-week lifespan) were subjected to the conditions airline flight crews endure when they repeatedly cross time zones on long-distance flights.
The fruit flies died like, well, flies. Way sooner than they should have. As it turns out, humans too suffer greatly when our sleep is short or disrupted, and no one more so than highly sensitive people. For that reason, we’re wise to keep a close eye on the quality and quantity of our sleep.
Recommended reading about sleep
If you crave condensed coverage about sleep, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has two excellent publications I recommend taking a look at. One covers all kinds of sleep issues, and the other is called Your Guide to Healthy Sleep.
For a deeper dive, though, I highly recommend a book called Why We Sleep by sleep researcher Matthew Walker, PhD. Walker has both a great sense of humor and a gift for making technical concepts accessible. Using Walker’s vivid metaphors, I found I could keep track of the complex, interconnected systems that affect sleep, layering each new concept onto the previous ones.
Here, I’ve organized some well-known sleep hygiene facts, and some lesser known ones, into categories that are particularly relevant to HSPs. Except where otherwise noted, you can find all the information I’ve quoted in the two NIH sleep articles, and in Why We Sleep.
1—We need to cool off before bed—physically and mentally
You may have read that a cool bedroom can help you sleep. That’s because a lower core body temperature contributes to drowsiness. Your circadian rhythm naturally initiates this cooling process in the evening.
Counterintuitively, taking a hot bath speeds up this process of lowering your core temperature, because the heat causes your blood to rush to the surface of your skin. On the other hand, exercising, which in general helps you sleep better, has the opposite effect if you do it too close to bedtime. So it’s best to exercise sometime before dinner, to give your body time to cool down.
Your brain needs to cool down before bed, too. You can take some time to write each evening before bed if that helps you settle. However, deep processing is like exercise: in general, it helps you sleep better, but if you do it after dinner, it may disrupt your sleep.
For this reason, I recommend you set aside ample “thinking time” each day well before bedtime—particularly for emotionally intense or stimulating topics. I keep my mind clear by taking a daily walk, in which I have time to think over everything from “Should I take that course, or not?” to “Why was I so irritated by that exchange with Susan yesterday?”
2—Learn how your daytime habits affect your sleep
Reading Why We Sleep, I was struck by the sheer number of habits and conditions that can disrupt our sleep. Working in front of a screen all day and into the evening? The blue light can reset your inner clock, disrupting sleep. Snacking on cheese or nuts before bed? Turns out protein before bed activates the digestion in a sleep-disturbing way.
The list goes on. The good news is, you don’t have to fix everything at once. Matthew Walker says if you do just one thing to help your sleep, go to bed and get up at the same time every day. If you do this, you’ll find other sleep-supporting habits fall into place as well.
For example, we all know that HSPs are more sensitive than non-HSPs to substances like caffeine. I had long believed that a late-afternoon cup of tea or coffee wouldn’t affect my sleep. I was wrong. In Why We Sleep (p. 28), I learned why:
In pharmacology, we use the term “half-life” when discussing…the length of time it takes for the body to remove 50% of a drug’s concentration. Caffeine has an average half-life of five to seven hours…Most people do not realize how long it takes to overcome a single dose of caffeine, and therefore fail to make the link between the bad night of sleep we wake from in the morning and the cup of coffee we had ten hours earlier with dinner.
Why We Sleep is full of this kind of specific, actionable information, which I found highly motivating. I learned about the roles of REM and NREM sleep in my overall functioning, my memory, and my mental and physical health, and I realized how essential it was for me to eat, drink, work, play, and live in a way that supported good sleep.
3—Understand how nervous system dysregulation affects your sleep
We’ve talked about the HSP need to cool down mentally, emotionally, and physically before bed. But this may not be enough. As Matthew Walker explains in Why We Sleep (p. 244),
Psychological distress is a principle instigator of insomnia…one common culprit has become clear: an overactive sympathetic nervous system …Chronic activation of the fight-or-flight nervous system causes myriad health problems, one of which is now recognized to be insomnia.
Walker describe four ways your sleep is affected if you are in a fight-or-flight state:
- Your metabolic rate stays too high for your core temperature to cool off
- Your body continues to produce alertness-promoting neurochemicals that keep your cardiac activity level high, preventing your transition into sleep
- The vigilance-centered areas of your brain stay active, producing worry and rumination, which in turn increases your fight-or-flight activation
- The sleep you do get is shallow and fragmented, providing you with little sense of refreshment when you wake up the next day
In other words, when your sympathetic nervous system is overactive at bedtime, you can’t fall asleep. You lie there and worry. You sleep poorly. Then you wake up feeling like death warmed over. Notice that this sounds awfully similar to the teenage sleep habits I described earlier. I understand now that I was in a near-constant state of nervous system overactivation.
Establish a daily practice for self-regulation
If any of these stressful symptoms sound familiar to you, you may be wondering what you can do to calm your nervous system. You are right to wonder, because nervous-system regulation is of central importance for HSPs. In fact, I was onto something with my dorm room posters: we all need to become more like leopards.
If a hungry leopard spots a Thomson’s gazelle, it will spring into full activation for the chase. But once the hunt is over, it rapidly returns to a state of perfect calm. Unfortunately, many of us in the human world have lost this ability. We need a way to restore nervous system regulation….and nothing works more powerfully than the breath to accomplish this task.
I particularly recommend the Breath-Body-Mind practices taught by Dr. Richard Brown and Dr. Patricia Gerbarg. These evidence-based practices are safe and easy to learn. Practiced over time, they permanently increase the resilience of your nervous system, regulating it to create an optimal balance of calm and alertness. As a result, you not only become less reactive to stimuli: you develop the ability to calm yourself quickly if you do get activated.
I’m doing what I can to get the word out to fellow HSPs about Breath-Body-Mind because I’ve been amazed by changes I’ve witnessed in myself and in clients to whom I’ve taught the practices over the past few months. (As always, I only recommend programs or practices I’ve used and shared extensively.) If you want to learn more, consider attending an introductory workshop, or read the book, The Healing Power of the Breath.
Your sleep is affected by a complex array of factors—physical, emotional, interpersonal, dietary, and environmental. In addition, your sleep patterns change as you pass through different life stages. Given this ever-shifting complexity, I recommend that you think of healthy sleep as a life-long project worthy of your regular attention. And I strongly suggest you put nervous-system regulation at the top of your priority list.
Photo by Dmitrii Zhodzishskii on Unsplash
I have had sleep problems all my life not knowing I was HSP. As well, my natural serotonin levels are too low , so I need to take an antidepressant for my overall health. I was told by numerous doctors to go to sleep the same time and wake up the same time. These doctors do not know that I am HSP> Depending on where a person is at as an HSP and self care and the reasons for insomnia, the actuality of arriving at going to sleep at the same time and waking up at the same time and putting into practice sleep supporting habits is somewhat of an ongoing puzzle. I have been reading much about HSP’s and sleep and one suggestion that I found that makes absolute sense is allowing my HSP body to wake up naturally in the morning. If my alarm or chime is set to wake me up in the middle of REM sleep then I will jolt my nervous system first thing in the morning before I even get out of bed! And my nervous system will stay jolted the whole day. Thus, the concept of allowing my body to wake up naturally without an alarm or chime. I realize this might be more difficult for those HSP people who have to get up to be somewhere ( I am not working now, so no time pressures, but I definately understand the experience…for 30 years I had to get up to get to work, and I’m sure I felt very sick most of those mornings). I will read the suggested books, but as an HSP who has just been through probably the worst year of my life…I was prescribed 6 different oversedating medications that had me extremely sick where most of my days were spent like a zombie sitting in a recliner chair or being in bed, of which this experience lasted 9 months, all the while I had various non HSP doctors telling me how to adjust my sleep, when it was the negative side effects of the medication I was taking, I would strongly recommend that any HSP reading about sleep, first read articles written by other HSP people, or HSP doctors, or HSP therapists and then when reading general articles or books on sleep, to always keep in mind our HSP traits and adjust their recommendations to our HSP needs! I joked with my doctor stating I had lost about 1000 hours of sleep in 8 months and that I had read it takes 4 days to recuperate from 1 hour of sleep loss. If this is an accurate analysis….it would take me 10 years to recuperate from drug induced sleep loss ( and the medication was suppose to help me sleep!). I am hoping this sleep loss assessment isn’t accurate, because I really don’t want to be spending 10 years of my life getting my sleep debt filled. Thank you again for the informative articles.
Over a year since my first posted comment. Well, my sleep quality has improved. I had to change the time of day that I take my antidepressant as the side effects were keeping me awake. I am still working on my sleep quantity, but have had glimpses of what it feels like to have a very restorative sleep. I forgot all about the book you mentioned. I will see if I can order it from the library.
On a side note, I recently listened to a podcast by a psychiatrist who discussed our physical brains and our non physical minds. Two different parts of who we are that many people (myself included) overlook…as funny as this sounds. Often everything in our heads is thought of as thoughts, emotions, and not actual physical matter….our physical brains. Maybe the two words are used so interchangeably that the distinctions have been lost.
For some reason this all clicked . I have anxiety , even with taking an antidepressant meant to help reduce anxiety. I suspect this might be because of my HSP trait. Possibly someone who isn’t HSP and who would take the same antidepressant would have all their anxiety alleviated. Not so for me.
The psychiatrist explained that as I take care of the health of my physical brain, the health of my non physical mind would improve. Fantastic! For some reason I respond to and understand better the concept of ‘physical’ solutions. For example going for a walk, going for a swim, sewing.
As I type this, I am thinking this may be due to the fact that I am an introvert and from what I understand introverts aren’t strong in conversations where extroverts thrive on conversations. So spending alot of time in my mind with my thoughts with myself or others…even a therapist, EXHAUSTS ME. And this is normal for an introvert.
Your whole article talks about physical solutions…..very understandable for me. Whereas another article that is more along the meditative, turning inwards approach is overwhelming for me. Aha…introversion must be the reason why. I’m glad you provide other HSPs with the opportunity to comment.
Me again. Thanks for giving me the space to comment and share.
As the months go on I understand more and more how putting nervous system regulation as a priority for proper sleep is a necessity. I have been practicing slow breathing for over 2 years now, but was recently introduced to the ‘Ocean Breath’. What a difference.
I have also read the two books: My Stroke of Insight and Whole Brain Living by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD…(she lives in the USA). She explains that our brains ( a key component for HSP folks to understand!) are actually divided into 4 major components….Left Side…thinking and emotion…Right Side…thinking and emotion. And how at any point we could have 4 ‘voices’ in our heads responding to an experience. As the HSP brain seems to have more energetic amygdala……Dr. Jill reminds us that we have 2 sets of amygdala. The left side seems to be the panic, anxiety….flight, fight, freeze response. The right side sounds like it is the fun, playful, full of energy side. She had a stroke and her left side went offline as she puts it. She was left with her right brain hemisphere…..the in the moment side of our brains. Nirvana as she describes it. Peaceful, happy. Very very recommended reading for all HSPs.
HI Suzanne, yes, finding that balance in our minds is so essential. Thank God we don’t have to have a stroke to move towards that…meditation for spiritual connection, breath practices for self-regulation, and establishing a healthy inner relationship are not an overnight fix, but over time, they will bring this deep peace Bolte Taylor describes.