It’s easy to get anxious when you wake up in the night. Do everything you can to ensure a good night’s sleep, but have strategies ready for those times you end up awake. 

For a highly sensitive person, sleep is like air. We need lots of it, and we can’t go long without it. At the same time, our sensitivity makes us vulnerable to many factors that disrupt or reduce the quality of our sleep.

How I wish we could store sleep, the way a saguaro can store water. Then, if we had a tough night, we could simply dip into our reserves to replenish ourselves. Unfortunately, we can’t do that.

No doubt, when we are sleep-deprived, napping or sleeping in is much better than simply powering through. However, as the neuroscientist and sleep researcher Matthew Walker put it in an interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio,

You’re trying to sleep off a debt that you’ve lumbered your brain and body with during the week, and wouldn’t it be lovely if sleep worked like that? Sadly, it doesn’t. Sleep is not like the bank, so you can’t accumulate a debt and then try and pay it off at a later point in time… you never get back all that you lost. You will sleep longer, but you will never achieve that full eight-hour repayment, as it were.

No wonder sleep specialists emphasize strategies that set us up so we sleep better in the first place. Walker himself offers 11 tips for improving sleep quality, and there are a number of HSP-specific sleep-related articles online. You’ll find two particularly good ones here and here.

But what about those times I can’t sleep?

By all means check out the above resources where you’ll find wonderfully encyclopedic lists of sleep-enhancing tips and habits, along with a clear explanation of the reasons why HSPs need more sleep.

But what about those times when, despite all your efforts and strategies, you simply can’t sleep? The HSP-specific articles above are silent on this important question. Matthew Walker at least offers something in his 11th tip which bears repeating, although it is probably old news to you:

Avoid lying in bed for too long. Lying in bed for prolonged periods, hoping you’ll finally nod off, isn’t an ineffective sleep strategy, but it can make you anxious and frustrated. Your brain will associate bed with being awake if you do anything in it besides sleeping or sex. If you cannot transition into wakefulness after about 25 to 30 minutes of lying in bed, get up and do a relaxing activity until you start feeling sleepy.

But what precisely should you do during that half hour while you are lying awake in bed? And what constitutes a “relaxing activity,” should you decide to get up? As HSPs, we need practical, specific answers to these questions so we can maximize the restfulness of any time we spend awake at night, while minimizing its negative effects.

Having been awake in the night myself for every possible reason—from overstimulation to loud upstairs roommates, from hormonal changes to creative impulses that weren’t getting expressed during the day, and much more—I’ve thought about this. A lot. Here’s what I do when I’m awake in the night….and I hope you’ll post your strategies in the comment section on the blog.

Try coherent breathing

I always start by trying coherent breathing: five breaths per minute, in and out through the nose. Coherent breathing is highly regulating to the nervous system, and it stimulates many other beneficial changes in the body. You can download an app like Breathing Zone to your phone to help you pace yourself.

If five breaths per minute feels too slow for you, use the app to experiment with speeds until you find one that feels easy to you. You can gradually slow the pace down over a period of weeks until you are comfortable at five breaths per minute. I set my phone so the tones will turn off in 20 to 30 minutes, in case I do fall back asleep.

Analyze the cause

Often, I do fall back asleep. But if I don’t, it’s time to do some detective work to find out why I’m awake. Here are some possible causes:

  • Am I cold? I can’t fall asleep if any part of me is cold—especially my feet. This is a simple fix: I get up, put on whatever I need to be warm enough, then go back to bed.
  • Is my brain pinging me with an important “to-do” item? I get up, write the item down on my to-do list, then get back in bed. I set the coherent breathing tones for 20 minutes, and go back to sleep.
  • Am I worried, or needing time to ponder something important? If so, I’ll get up, put on enough layers to stay warm, and turn on enough light to see well enough to write. Whether something in me simply needs to be heard, or action is needed, capturing it in writing calms me down. Then I go back to bed, do coherent breathing, and fall back asleep.
  • Am I overaroused from the day? I get up and do a “full system reset.” I practice (counterintuitively) with qigong shaking to raise my energy; Ha breath to circulate the energy; 4-4 arm circles to regulate and store the energy in my body; and 4-4-6-2 breathing for deep calming. Finally, I climb back in bed and do coherent breathing.
  • Am I going through age-related hormonal changes? I went through this before I had learned coherent breathing. I found if I relaxed and accepted my wakeful state, I could enter a state of deep peace and calm by focusing on connecting to the divine. I’d silently repeat, “All is well. All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.”

What I do—and don’t do—if none of these strategies works

What if I’ve tried all these strategies, it is now 3 AM or 4 AM, and I still can’t get back to sleep? Here are four things I %don’t do, no matter how long I’m up:

  • Check social media or the news
  • Watch TV
  • Check my phone
  • Work
  • Read

I used to try to get work done in the night, but I noticed that I felt fairly wretched the next day if I spent any time at all on a screen. Even reading stimulates my brain to greater wakefulness, so I don’t do that either.

Instead, I bow to reality. I put on my workout clothes, then do my morning routine—a few hours early. If I haven’t done my breathing practices already, I do those. I meditate, then creep quietly downstairs and exercise or go for a walk. I might even eat a bit of breakfast.

By this time, I’m usually feeling really, really sleepy. I go back to bed…and since I’ve already done my morning routine, I can sleep in later than usual.

I’ve discovered, with some amazement, that I feel quite decent for the rest of the day when I use the strategies I’ve described above. In fact, the difference is so striking that I find it easy to avoid work, TV, social media, and even reading when I’m up in the night.

Bigger-picture detective work

With attentive self-observation, you’ll begin to notice patterns of wakefulness that may require bigger-picture changes on your part. For example, if you find yourself chronically waking up needing to process and ponder, you will need to create more time during the day for reflection. If you live in a loud apartment building, you may need to move.

Sooner or later, though, we all find ourselves awake in the night, and possibly overstimulated as well. Be sure to have strategies in place that work for you. In addition, if your waking becomes chronic, look at your daytime and evening habits—exercise, caffeine, screen time, and so on— and observe their effects on your sleep.

Particularly when we are under stress, deep sleep can feel like water in the desert. It’s precious. We need it to survive. And we don’t know when we might have to go for long stretches on limited rations. For all these reasons, if you are highly sensitive, plan for the times when you wake up in the night. Have strategies in place to regulate your nervous system and make your awake time as restful as you can.

Image: Dulcey Lima on Unsplash