Do Highly Sensitive People Struggle More with Bad Sleep and Insomnia?


HSPs may get worse sleep quality and be at higher risk of insomnia. Is there a way to change that?

You lie down after a full day, hoping that tonight will be the night you fall asleep easily. Instead, your mind starts racing with all the things you did during the day — the interactions you had, the endless tasks on your to-do list, those nagging unresolved problems, and 101 other things. Yes, these are things anyone might stay awake over, but a sensitive person’s brain is particularly good at overthinking.

When your mind remains awake, so, too, does your body. Your heart rate and breathing do not slow, your body temperature cannot settle down, and your blood vessels do not relax and widen — all physiological changes necessary for calming the body in preparation for restful sleep. If you’re a highly sensitive person, you also key in on much subtler sensations: Were these sheets always so itchy? Was the bedroom always this hot/cold/bright/you-name-it? Why is my spouse breathing so loud?

Though you’re tired, adrenaline kicks in and your legs start to feel restless. If you share your bed with someone, they are inevitably already asleep. You might look over and wonder, “Why is it so hard for me (and not them)?” 

The answer may be simple: sleep may be harder because you are a highly sensitive person (HSP).

Why Do Highly Sensitive People Struggle to Sleep?

While sleep is important for everyone — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends at least seven hours for adults 18 and older — it is even more crucial for highly sensitive people.  And yet, for HSPs, good sleep is paradoxically even harder to find.

According to HSP psychotherapist and expert Julie Bjelland, one of the brain regions that is more active in HSPs is the amygdala, a key part of the limbic system. (The limbic system regulates unconscious processes, including emotions.) The amygdala in particular is the portion of the brain that signals whether we are “safe” — or afraid. 

For HSPs, Bjelland says, the amygdala is on a hair trigger: it takes much less to signal danger. That means we can feel unsafe (and unable to sleep) for all kinds of reasons: tenuous social interactions, physical discomfort, extreme hunger, a sense of overwhelm, or, ironically, being tired. Any of these can activate the amygdala for a sensitive person and, with it, a night of tossing and turning.

Ironically, one of the most effective ways to manage this heightened activity is with rest — despite the fact that when HSPs are overstimulated, sleep is more difficult to achieve. (Plus, even at rest, our HSP brains still process everything deeply.) It certainly seems like a catch-22.

Are Highly Sensitive People More Likely to Have Insomnia?

There is not yet a good body of research studying the interaction of sleep and high sensitivity. However, in my own practice as a therapist, I have witnessed a much higher rate of complains about insomnia and sleep-related problems from my highly sensitive clients. Bjelland says that she has observed the same in her own practice.

(A link between HSPs and insomnia also makes intuitive sense. It even serves as a plot device for the classic folk tale about the Princess and the Pea — a story that Psychology Today used to explain high sensitivity in its classic piece on HSPs.)

Sleep troubles don’t always mean clinical insomnia. In my practice, I have witnessed nearly all highly sensitive clients reporting some kind of sleep issue, ranging from being night owls to true insomniacs to needing a very specific set of conditions to sleep well. Many HSPs tell me they have to put themselves to bed extremely early in the evening. I personally can relate, as I’m someone who has struggled with sleep since a very young age. 

The good thing is, there are specific steps us HSPs can take to prevent the onset of insomnia. Many of them involve not just sleep rituals, which can be hit-and-miss, but taking steps earlier in your waking day to prevent the amygdala response in the first place. Here are four of the most effective ways I have seen my HSP clients kick insomnia and get meaningful, good quality sleep.

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4 Key Ways to Battle Insomnia as a Highly Sensitive Person

1. Set boundaries with time throughout the day.

Living as a highly sensitive person can come with extreme highs and lows. Some of the gifts of high sensitivity include creativity, passion, and the ability to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way. But — all of these strengths demand an incredible investment of emotional energy, and it can be difficult for HSPs not to overload themselves

Making sleep more of a priority means setting boundaries with time throughout the day. I know — many HSPs are not fans of time anxiety. Plus, practicing the power of saying “no” can be hard for HSPs, as empathy may drive them to say “yes” even when it is to their (overstimulated and exhausted) detriment.

So how do you do this? Try to limit extra responsibilities (such as a passion project) to one task per day. And when it comes to the HSP empathy trait, if you need to show up for a loved one during the day, you need to also show up for yourself by scheduling some alone time. (Yes, schedule it!) Doing so will positively impact your ability to process and decompress in the daytime hours, not while you’re lying in bed at night, trying to sleep. Even if you spend your alone time doing nothing, it’s still mission accomplished, as you allowed yourself to rest and decompress. 

2. Be mindful of how you’re spending the last two hours of the day before you lie down.

For highly sensitive people, it is increasingly important to be mindful of what kind of simulation you are taking in each day, especially during the last two hours of the day. 

Many people enjoy watching TV to decompress at the end of the day. However, for HSPs, it is important to be aware of what kind of content they are viewing. Watching something incredibly stimulating, violent, or stressful before bed (like the news!) is likely going to wind up the HSP nervous system. 

Another thing to consider is when you stop working. HSPs who have a lot of priorities throughout the day tend to postpone their own self-care (or work) until there is no one left to care for. While it can be tempting to stay up late and finish work (especially with the fluid boundaries of working from home), it is important to notice how close to bedtime your nervous system can handle working. Personally, I have learned my limit is 90 minutes. If I stop writing or working any closer to when I want to sleep, it is pretty certain I will struggle with insomnia that evening — my mind will race with thoughts and still be overstimulated.

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

3. Don’t miss your “sleep window” — the period of time when your mind and body want to sleep.

At the center of our limbic system sits our hypothalamus, which plays a role in our body’s ability to sleep. Each of us has our own personal “sleep window,” which is the period of time that our body wants — and accepts — sleep. 

There are many factors that go into when our personal sleep window is, such as biology, though much of it can be environmental. The latter includes artificial light in the evening (and a lack of natural light during the day), smartphone, alcohol, or drug usage, and a lack of physical activity.

Within that window is something called the “sleep gate,” which is when our body is most capable of falling asleep. It is important to pay attention to when your sleep gate opens by obeying your body’s sleep cues rather than pushing past it. (The people-pleaser in us may want to stay up and finish what we’re working on, but it’s not a good idea!)

Once our personal sleep gate closes — which is often within 45 minutes to an hour — the HSP nervous system will ramp up stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, causing wakefulness. And, yep… this will lead to insomnia.

4. Try following a consistent bedtime routine and practicing good sleep hygiene, like lying down and waking up at the same time every day.

There are many ways to get into a good bedtime routine — but consistency is key. Here are some top ways to do so.

  • Practice good sleep hygiene by keeping a consistent sleep (and wake-up schedule). Even if the time you fall asleep changes, you must get up at the same time every morning to make it a habit.
  • Omit long naps whenever possible. This way, you will create “sleep debt” for the next evening and be nice and tired when it comes time to lie down.
  • Cultivate a calming sleep routine. Do some relaxing pre-bedtime activities, like reading, taking a bath, doing yoga, journaling, or using aromatherapy (lavender works well!).
  • Reduce artificial light in the evening. This means turn off blue light features on any and all technological devices, as well as overhead lights.
  • Increase your natural light intake in the daytime. Aim for at least 30 minutes of midday light, which will also increase vitamin D stores in the body.
  • Ensure bedtime snacks are not high in sugar or salt, as both can be stimulating to the nervous system.
  • Limit the use of sleeping pills, as it masks sleep problems and prevents you from resolving that core issue.
  • Do not use alcohol to fall asleep. Even if it helps with the onset of sleep, alcohol prevents the deep, restorative sleep needed for health and wellness.
  • See a therapist or sleep specialist to practice Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). This has been proven to help treat circadian disturbances affecting healthy sleep, and you can learn particular skills for improving your sleep issues.

If all else fails and you find yourself awake at night  for more than 20 minutes in bed, experts suggest you leave your bed and do something soothing, such as a warm shower or light stretching or meditation. You should get up — versus lie there — since your bed is a place for sleep or physical intimacy, and nothing else. You don’t want to associate it with being restless and sleepless, too.

It can be difficult to set the boundaries needed for healthy sleep, but the benefits far outweigh the cost of doing just “one more thing” before you go to bed. Trust me! Plus, as a highly sensitive person, you need to conserve as much energy as you can. 

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