Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive woman who cannot sleep

HSPs, Are Racing Thoughts Preventing You From Sleeping? It Might Be Time to Change How You Breathe

“Coherent breathing” slows the breath to around five breaths per minute and can help you (finally) get to sleep.

Sleep is a basic human physiological function and one that’s crucial for our health. And when you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you need more sleep than others — all the overstimulation we HSPs experience all day catches up to us. 

Research hypothesizes that sleep may be necessary for restoration, as well as processing the day and enhancing our immune response. Since we’ve evolved to spend almost a third of our life asleep, you’d think it’d be easy to come by — but it seems that’s often not the case. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night. And research shows that sleep deprivation can have short- and long-term health consequences. These include everything from increased stress and emotional distress to longer-term effects, like hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

But certain elements of modern life aren’t conducive to sleep — and you can probably relate. From our stressful environments to our lifestyles, there are many factors which can contribute to poor sleep and insomnia. From the blue light of our devices and TVs to our busy schedules, our mind and body are constantly stimulated. So what do we HSPs do when the racing thoughts just won’t stop

How to Reduce Racing HSP Thoughts 

As a highly sensitive person, I’ve always been a light sleeper, the slightest noise can coax me from slumber. Nevertheless, until the uncertainty of the pandemic, I’d generally managed to fall asleep after an hour or so and sleep around 7-8 hours. 

But, more recently, sleep hadn’t come as easily. I frequently took almost two hours to fall asleep, and when I did, rest was fitful and I often woke up several times a night.    

During those times, my mind was a constant stream of overthinking. HSPs become stressed easily and external stimuli can overwhelm us. With a rush of thoughts at a time when our bodies need rest, our capacity for sleep is reduced and our quality of sleep diminishes. 

Without good quality sleep, my mood began to dip and small tasks became large mountains. After a few days of inconsistent sleep resulted in migraine, I knew I had to do something to help myself.

How to Regulate the Nervous System 

Due to sensory processing sensitivity, the HSP nervous system works differently than that of non-HSPs. We know that the HSP’s depth of processing is at work, even after the event. This means that we may be processing events or emotions from days ago — even at rest.

I find my mind races with thoughts after a day of  socializing with friends or after an important meeting at work. Racing thoughts serve to keep our stress response engaged, which in turn keeps our breathing elevated. 

Our breathing is regulated by the autonomic nervous system and is an unconscious process, along with heart rate, digestion, and other bodily system controls. Breathing sets off a whole host of changes in the body that promotes rest or stress. The vagus nerve has an important part to play here, as it sends signals to the autonomic nervous system — which slows down or speeds up our breathing.

The simplest way to calm down our body is to breathe slowly. I’d read enough about stress and anxiety to know that deep breathing is key to stress reduction and feeling more grounded. But I’d never considered the importance of breathing for the benefit of sleep. 

How to Breathe to Promote Calm

There’s a growing body of research on the effects of breathing on our health. In James Nestor’s book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, he states that 90 percent of us are breathing incorrectly and that this is at the root of a host of ailments. Although breathing is automatic, there are things we can do to optimize this crucial life force.

I came across Charlie Morley’s book,Wake Up to Sleep, after reading about it in a magazine. My interest was immediately piqued when I read that his techniques have been proven to help reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality in 87 percent of participants. 

A lucid dream expert, Morley is an authoritative voice, having developed mindful sleep techniques originally for military veterans and those suffering from stress- or trauma-affected sleep patterns. His methods mix mindfulness-based techniques with breathwork — and focus on regulating the nervous system. They can help anyone, whether or not they’ve been affected by trauma. 

Research also supports the importance of slow breathing for the benefit of the mind and body.  I was also surprised to learn from Morley that most of us take 15 breaths per minute — and that this is enough of a signal to convince our nervous system that we’re in danger. Surely I didn’t breathe that quickly? Yet even in my calm and relaxed state, after timing my breaths, I can report that I do indeed breathe 15 times a minute. 

I was ready to learn more about how breathwork could improve my sleep. Here are a few tips on how changing your breathing can help you sleep better. 

3 Ways to Change the Way You Breathe as an HSP

1. Slow down your breathing.

Coherent breathing is a breathing practice that slows the breath to around five breaths per minute by taking equal inhales and equal exhales. Breathwork has been used for years in many different cultures, notably in Eastern practices. While it can be done as part of a yoga practice or meditation, it is also effective on its own. 

The aim of coherent breathing is to “get our ANS (autonomic nervous system) in balance,” Morley says, and activate a division of the ANS, known as the parasympathetic nervous system. Breathing around five breaths per minute synchronizes the electrical rhythms of the heart, lungs, and brain, causing the body to be both relaxed and alert. 

I followed Morley’s coherent breathing practice before bed for two weeks. After those two weeks, my sleep was transformed. Two changes were striking — the length of time it took for me to fall asleep decreased and my quality of sleep increased

On average, it only took me 20-40 minutes to fall asleep, which was much better than my usual almost two hours. The most dramatic result was that I was now sleeping for seven hours and feeling refreshed, whereas I’d previously needed nine hours of sleep to experience that same well-rested feeling. 

Coherent breathing is a simple way to help your body relax. To begin with, try it for 15 minutes a day. Breathing in this way may feel very alien at first, but it’s worth persevering and building in 20-30 minutes of this breathwork technique per day over the course of a month to really notice the benefits. 

Morley suggests you follow a coherent breathing guided audio or video online, although you can do the technique without it, as well. Here’s what Morley advises:

  • Breathe in slowly for a count of 6. 
  • Breathe out slowly for a count of 6. 
  • Repeat for as long as you need.

Then prepare to feel calm and relaxed!

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2. Make sure you close your mouth.

Morley also advises to close your mouth and breathe through your nose when it comes to an important aspect of our sleep. This impacts everything from the amount of oxygen we breathe in to the quality of our breathing itself.

Morley tells us that breathing through our nose is better for us. “The nose has a three-layer filtration system made up of nasal hairs which help stop dirt and debris entering the nose, plus a mucus membrane, which catches dust and bacteria… and microscopic hairs called cilia, which help move mucus along the respiratory tract and further filter out the bad stuff.”

Nasal breathing also increases the vacuum in our lungs, which “allows us to draw in 20 percent more oxygen than breathing through the mouth,” he says.

Morley says we should breathe through our nose as much as possible during the day, which increases our likelihood of doing so at night, too. It’s like training ourselves to breathe differently until it becomes second nature. A couple things to note:

  • Notice when you might be breathing through your mouth and correct it by closing the mouth and breathing through the nose instead. 
  • Spend some time on conscious breathwork each day to increase your awareness of the benefits of nasal breathing. 

For an in-depth look at the benefits of nasal breathing, check out Patrick McKeown’s book, Close Your Mouth: Buteyko Breathing Clinic Self-Help Manual. In it, McKeown explores the multiple effects of closed-mouth breathing on various aspects of our health, from our oxygen intake to our dental health. 

3. Breathe fully (in order to use your whole lung capacity). 

Most of us don’t breathe fully or use the whole of our lung capacity. When we’re feeling stressed, we’re more likely to take shallow breaths, which are located in the chest area. In doing this, we activate our stress response. 

But Morley says that expanding our lungs ensures that breathing can happen more effectively. He cites a 30-year study carried out by New York State University on 1,000 participants. It showed that larger lungs means longer life, and that lung capacity is one of the greatest indicators of longevity. 

And, as I am proof of, the effects of not breathing fully can show up in restless sleep and insomnia. This is where slow, deep breathing can help. Coherent breathing is useful here, as well as ensuring we’re taking full, slow breaths by using our diaphragm. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Either seated or lying down, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.  Breathe normally. At this stage, we don’t want to change how we breathe; we just need to see how you’re breathing. 
  • When you breathe in, notice where your hand feels movement (either in the chest area or the stomach area).
  • If you feel movement in the chest area, it’s likely you’re using the top portion of your lungs and could benefit from deepening your breathing. 
  • When you breathe in slowly, your stomach should expand as you take in air to your lungs. When you breathe out, the stomach should fall. 

The benefits of diaphragmatic breathing  include helping you relax by deactivating the stress response, increasing lung capacity, and increasing the oxygen in your bloodstream. And anything that causes you to relax is good news for your sleep, especially as a highly sensitive soul. Adjusting our breathing is an essential thing to keep in our HSP mental health toolbox.

By understanding how the effect of stress and overstimulation can impact our sleep, we can begin to help prime our highly sensitive body for sleep using the simple power of the breath.  Easy, right? Here’s wishing you sweet dreams…

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