For HSPs, racing emotions and thoughts can interfere with your sleep. Here’s how experts turn them off.
I was having such a lovely evening before I opened Twitter. My heart pounded as I read a private message in my inbox. A colleague had scolded me about an “inappropriate” post I had retweeted. It was blunt and devoid of any niceties. And they had totally misinterpreted the tweet! They inferred a meaning far away from the ironic and light-humored joke I had intended.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), my highly sensitive nervous system does not respond well to messages (and criticism) like this. I felt attacked. Hot anger rose in my body. Then the worry about what others might think set in: Did I do something wrong? If this person had misinterpreted my post, could others have, as well? What if I offended someone? Oh God!
My HSP brain went into overdrive. My heart pounded, my thoughts raced, and my breathing quickened. I was emotionally “flooded.” And all just before bed. Great, I thought. I was in for a rough night ahead.
How Deep Emotional Reactions Can Affect Sleep
My husband sympathized, but didn’t quite understand how this comment affected me so much. As a highly sensitive soul, I have strong emotional reactions to things that other people seem to move through with ease.
Growing up, I often heard I was “too emotional” or “too sensitive.” I was also told, “That’s not a big deal — just get over it.” You have probably heard these words, too. The more I learn about my highly sensitive nature, the more understanding I am of it and all the beautiful gifts it brings to the world. I also have a wonderful husband, sister, and close group of friends who also see it as a gift. However, the strong emotional reactions that come with being an HSP can sometimes get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
When you google “how to fall asleep,” many suggestions come up, such as sleep hygiene (like following set bedtimes and wake-up times), taking herbal supplements, and practicing breathing exercises. These things might help with a mild sleep disturbance, but they don’t do much to help with an emotional storm like I was experiencing. Also, being too strict with sleep hygiene can make insomnia worse. And, as an HSP, we need more sleep than others anyway. Otherwise, we are bound to be HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired), which doesn’t do us any good either.
Luckily, my job as a sleep psychologist has taught me to use mindfulness to manage strong emotions that interfere with sleep. Here are ways to respond mindfully, instead of reactively, when amidst an emotional storm that interferes with your sleep.
5 Ways to Get a Better Night’s Sleep as an HSP, According to a Sleep Psychologist
1. Practice mindfulness — but not right before bed.
Opposite to what you might think, we sleep psychologists don’t encourage using mindfulness meditation before bed to help you fall asleep. Instead, we encourage people to practice mindfulness exercises during the day, when awake, to learn the skills. Then, we can draw on these skills to respond to difficult events rather than react mindlessly, which can sometimes worsen the situation. And for HSPs, mindfulness can be especially helpful to slow down all the overstimulation we experience.
“There’s an idea in Buddhism called the “second dart.” It suggests that the first dart is something our enemy throws at us (in this case, a lack of sleep) and the second dart is the one that we throw at ourselves (in this case, the obsession with our goal to get better sleep). While we might not be able to alleviate the first one right away, by changing our attitude towards outcomes, we can avoid the second dart altogether.”
Mindfulness teaches us to stop trying so hard to control our emotions and sleep, so we can move through difficulty with more ease. Apply the principles of mindfulness to a sleepless night instead.
2. Have a “beginner’s mind,” as though you’re experiencing something for the first time.
A beginner’s mind is like seeing the world for the first time. We pay attention to the present moment. We notice the petals of a flower and the feeling of the breeze on our skin. Sounds very similar to being a highly sensitive person, right?
With a beginner’s mind, we observe our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, but we don’t buy into them. We notice them, say hello, and let them go. If you have young kids in your life, you will see them do this naturally. Watch a child play in the garden and be so excited by a snail! Life was simple back then.
Sadly, we tend to lose our beginner’s mind as we grow up. We think we have seen all the snails we need to see. Instead, we think about a project at work, check Twitter, or imagine what we should say to a colleague… Our mind goes elsewhere rather than focusing on the present moment.
On the emotional night that I couldn’t sleep, I decided to apply the principle of beginner’s mind. I noticed my heart racing and my body getting hot, and I saw the worried thoughts come up in my mind. Instead of following the thoughts, I said, “Hello, thoughts,” smiled to myself, and let them go. I also paid attention to what it felt like to be awake in bed. I felt the softness of the sheets and the warmth of the blankets.
Beginner’s mind allowed me to see that being awake in bed was just that: I was awake in my comfortable, warm bed. This experience was not good or bad — it just was. I did not need to judge it negatively. Also, I noted that my body was not in a state conducive to sleep. So it was time to apply the next step of the process…
3. Accept that you cannot sleep and just let things be.
Acceptance is a willingness to see things as they are. It is the courage to stop trying to force an outcome and, instead, just let things be. A quote by author Dan Millman says, “Stress happens when the mind resists what is.” In other words, stress happens if we try hard to sleep when our body isn’t ready. We then get anxious and frustrated that we can’t sleep. This makes things worse, and ironically, we are less likely to get the sleep we seek (i.e., the second dart). Plus, our HSP overthinking mind kicks in, too…
But if we can accept that we are not sleepy, we realize there is not much point in staying in bed. We often avoid getting out of bed when we can’t sleep, but if we spend a lot of time awake in bed, it creates an association between the bed as a place of wakefulness and frustration. By letting go of how we want things to be (i.e., asleep) and practicing acceptance instead (i.e., we are awake), we avoid getting into a battle with insomnia.
Applying the principle of acceptance and letting go took me a while to follow on this night. Although I was not sleepy, I went to bed at my normal time out of habit (in hindsight, I should have stayed up later until I was sleepy). I lay there for a little while, noticing my heart racing and thoughts storming. Thanks to beginner’s mind, I realized my body was not in a sleepy state. So I chose to let go of my desire to sleep, get out of bed, and do something else more accepting of my wakefulness.
In the sleep clinic, we call this stimulus control. Instead of staying in bed and getting frustrated, I made myself comfy on the couch in low-light levels, with a warm blanket, and watched the end of a breathwork video I had started earlier that day. I did not do this to make myself sleepy, but more to honor my emotional state and care for myself that evening. (Self-care is very important for HSPs!) After a while, I noticed my eyelids became heavier and I started yawning. Sleepiness cues were present, so I went back to bed. It was not the best night of sleep, but I was okay.
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4. Maintain trust and confidence in your ability to sleep (when the time is right).
We can lose trust and confidence in our ability to sleep when we have sleep difficulties — we try so hard to manage and override our wakefulness. But striving for sleep actually makes it worse (i.e., second dart). We have an inbuilt sleep homeostat — an automated sleep process that works to maintain stability ─ which means we cannot go forever without sleep. Our body will eventually sleep if we can get out of its way. Check out my video on the Two Process Model of Sleep Regulation to learn more.
So, trust that your wonderful HSP mind and body can self-regulate and adjust for sleep loss. Sleep will return when it’s ready (although I do know it can be hard if you have a busy day tomorrow, or had a busy day today). Staying up journaling your feelings, reading, or watching a video is a better use of your time than trying to force sleep. Also, if you get less sleep tonight, your body will be hungrier for sleep tomorrow night, thanks to your sleep homeostat. Think, “If not tonight, then tomorrow night.”
5. Continue the cycle of practicing mindfulness (during waking hours).
I continued to practice mindfulness the next day. I got up at my normal time to keep my circadian rhythms happy and intact. I went for a walk in the sunshine and brought my beginner’s mind with me. Even when tired, you can still appreciate the beauty in the world (especially as an HSP). Thankfully, the emotional storm had subsided.
I also had some perspective on how I wanted to respond to the Twitter private message rather than ignore it. I decided to write back to my colleague and told them I was upset by their message. I got an explanation ─ they read it on a crowded bus and just sent it off quickly without thinking ─ and an apology. I appreciated the response very much and felt a lot better than if I had said nothing. And my sleep returned to normal the next night.
So remember these ideas on how you can apply mindfulness to sleep the next time you experience an emotional storm. A bad night of sleep every now and then is a normal part of the human experience. And although mindfulness is not a magical cure for insomnia, it does provide a way to move through it with more ease.
However, if you do experience ongoing difficulties with insomnia, evidence-based help is available. You can seek out a behavioral sleep medicine provider in your area.
In the meantime, I wish you sweet dreams, HSPs!
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