Sensitive people need their sleep. Period. Take this from someone who once tried her hardest to ignore that, and paid the consequences.

In college, I had a huge crush on a fellow student who believed it was a waste of life to sleep for more than six hours a night. I adopted his sleep habits, and within a month I was so anxious I could barely function.

Sleep deprivation is in fact associated with a surprising variety of serious consequences, ranging from cognitive impairment and forgetfulness to weight gain and heart disease. Being exhausted kills your sex drive and makes you significantly more accident prone. And it is strongly linked to depression.

There’s no way around it: when you don’t get your sleep, you’ve got rough road ahead.

Fatigue is especially hard on highly sensitive people (HSP’s)

We are already more prone to anxiety and depression, if we lack self-acceptance of our trait or have not been accepted for it by others. And we already need more rest than the majority of people, in order to process and integrate all the stimuli we take in.

If you are sleep deprived, you may have these classic symptoms:

  • You fall asleep in movies or in a darkened room
  • You struggle to stay awake during meetings
  • It’s really hard to get out of bed in the morning
  • You rely on caffeine to prop you up

But if you are highly sensitive, subtler levels of fatigue will seriously affect you long before the classic symptoms kick in. You may recognize these signs:

The ‘bumps’ of life hit you even harder than usual

Lack of sleep weakens your internal shock absorbers, which are already less sturdy than most people’s. Any kind of criticism or negative energy coming your way feels devastating.

You deteriorate from your usual wise, empathic, understanding self to a cranky, frazzled, even snappish state, like a two-year-old needing a nap—because you do need a nap!

You lose access to your intuitive inner knowing

I describe this as “not being able to feel myself.” My body gets wound up and tense and I can’t “hear” the internal messages I get when I’m well-rested about the rightness (or not-rightness) of an action or decision.

The more I can’t feel and hear myself, the more my mind spins to compensate, and the more effortful my actions feel. My intuition is usually such a reliable guide that without it, I feel like a pilot flying blind.

You get anxious

When sleep deprivation makes you hypersensitive to criticism or judgment and cuts you off from your intuition, you are much more prone to feel anxious or discouraged. You may be aware something is “off,” but you can’t tell what it is.

Remember, you are built to feel and observe the world deeply, and to think and reflect deeply on what you’ve taken in. And you need rest in order to process and integrate all this. If you don’t get  that rest, you become more and more overstimulated.

Paradoxically, you may respond to this by driving yourself even harder. It’s a vicious cycle, because impaired judgment is itself a symptom of serious fatigue. People who are very tired are notoriously unaware of the degree to which their fatigue is impairing their cognition and affecting their reaction times.

Solution: the mental “sticky note”

I’ve come to recognize that if I can’t decide what to do next, it’s a sure sign I need a nap. Or some restorative yoga. Or even just a break. Some kind of rest.  But how do you remember to do this, when anxiety and overwhelm are clouding your thinking?

My solution is the mental “sticky note.” You can even use a real one if that helps–put it someplace you’ll see it.Write this on your note:


This note, whether mental or physical, represents a commitment to yourself to remember how it is when you are rested: your intent is clear, your  thoughts are more organized, your creativity flows, and your actions are easy, effective, and elegant. If you are fuzzy, inefficient, indecisive, or anxious, something is off.

Every skimpy night’s sleep creates a new pothole ahead of you. For your HSP body, fatigue is intolerable. If you don’t provide it with the sleep it needs, it will force you to rest: you’ll hurt yourself or get sick or get so overwhelmed and anxious that  you can’t work effectively.

Do whatever it takes to get eight or more hours of sleep regularly and if you possibly can, set up your schedule with built-in down time so you can rest if you need to. Listen to your body, and if you can’t hear it, assume you need rest.

Your happiness and effectiveness will skyrocket.

References on high sensitivity:
Aron, Elaine (2010). Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person. New York: Routledge.
Aron, Elaine (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person. New York: Broadway Books. 

Photo by Micah Boerma from Pexels