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.