Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person waking up with sleep paralysis and staring in fear unable to move.

Highly Sensitive People May Suffer From Sleep Paralysis More Than Others

If your HSP mind is overstimulated when you’re awake, it may stay that way while you sleep — and result in the terrifying feeling known as sleep paralysis.

One night as I was sleeping, my 20-year-old daughter came into my bedroom crying inconsolably. Instinctively, I jumped up and began doing all of the “mom” things: I searched her body for injuries, felt her head for a fever, and held her tight. I tried to console and comfort her, as she was unable to tell me what was wrong. It was terrifying.   

I was relieved when, finally, she said she’d had a nightmare. A nightmare, we could work through. We could use coping mechanisms such as meditation, breathing techniques, and prayer to combat the lingering effects of a bad dream.

However, my daughter’s nightmare didn’t end when she woke up. The true nightmare began once her eyes opened.

Most of the time after having a bad dream, you wake up. However, what happens when you awake from dreaming to find yourself unable to move? Unable to maneuver your legs, arms, and entire bodies? What happens when you are physically stuck? Terrified? Helpless

This phenomenon is known as sleep paralysis. And this is the conscious nightmare that my daughter — who’s also a highly sensitive person (HSP) — had experienced.

“I find that sleep paralysis sufferers are often highly sensitive creative individuals who need an outlet for their creativity.”

What Is Sleep Paralysis?

Sleep paralysis is a type of parasomnia; in other words, an abnormal sleep behavior. It occurs when our minds wake up from a sleeping state, but our bodies do not. So our minds are alert, yet there is an inability to speak or to move. Sleep paralysis is a terrifying experience in which you are aware of your cognitive functioning; you know that you can walk/run/turn over, but you cannot will your body to take action. You experience a brief loss of muscle control called atonia, and hallucinations are not uncommon either. 

If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you’re already more in tune with others’ emotions, have a heightened perception of your surroundings, and sometimes are more prone to certain occurrences. In fact, some experts think highly sensitive people are more likely than others to experience sleep paralysis.   

“I find that sufferers are often highly sensitive creative individuals who are imaginative and need an outlet for their creativity,” Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan, a physiologist and sleep therapist, has written. However, not enough research has been done to indicate how likely it would be for HSPs to experience it vs. non-HSPs. 

Overall, researchers say that sleep paralysis is quite common — studies have found that 7.6 percent of the general population have experienced it at least once. And students and psychiatric patients experience it even more, 28.3 percent and 31.9 percent, respectively. 

What Causes Sleep Paralysis?

Although the exact cause of sleep paralysis is unknown, some factors may trigger it more than others, like sleep deprivation and stress. Some other causes include: 

  • insomnia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • narcolepsy  
  • changes in your sleep schedule 
  • substance abuse

As HSPs, we often become easily stressed and overwhelmed by external stimuli. Having too many thoughts in our heads can impede our ability to fall asleep, which negatively influences the quality of our rest. Over time, lack of adequate sleep can cause sleep deprivation. (And, if anything, HSPs need more sleep, not less.) This extreme lack of sleep leads to a multitude of undesirable and uncomfortable outcomes, such as crankiness, inability to relax, loss of appetite, and — you guessed it: sleep paralysis.

Factors That Can Impact an HSP’s Sleep

Some factors that can contribute to an HSP’s ability to get enough sleep include:

  • Being overwhelmed. Without adequate sleep, thoughts and events interwoven into our lives trigger us more easily, and we are more frequently overwhelmed. This overwhelm can trigger our highly sensitive minds into overthinking, which can, in turn, cause more difficulty in reaching the calm mental state necessary to achieve a peaceful night’s sleep. 
  • Elevated anxiety can affect sleep patterns. Many HSPs regularly deal with anxiety. This anxiety can be caused by various factors, such as work, school, relationships, and even sleep. Research shows that sleep anxiety occurs when the stress of not getting enough sleep causes stress, and then — as a result of ruminating over how to fall asleep or whether you will get enough rest — your ability to fall asleep is inhibited. This increased stress and anxiety work counter to our bodies’ abilities to relax for bed and can result in sleep deprivation.
  • Being overwhelmed + anxiety + overthinking can prohibit the mind from relaxing. It is notable that being overwhelmed and suffering from anxiety are not mutually exclusive, and they can often overlap with one another. This being overwhelmed/anxiety/overthinking combination can create a three-headed monster that can wreak havoc on our highly sensitive brain’s ability to relax and achieve restful slumber. And a sleep-deprived mind becomes even more susceptible to episodes of sleep paralysis.  

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Ways HSPs Can Avoid Sleep Paralysis

There is no guaranteed way to determine whether an HSP will (or will not) experience sleep paralysis. We can, however, attempt to manage triggers, such as our stress and anxiety levels.

Aside from being an HSP, my oldest daughter is also a collegiate student athlete and lives away from home — and all of these factors contribute to her elevated stress levels. And when she is highly stressed, she sometimes still suffers from sleep paralysis. We spoke to her physician, but because she doesn’t have any other underlying sleep conditions or triggers (substance abuse, prolonged trauma, narcolepsy), we were instructed to try to improve the quality of her sleep by forming solid nighttime routines. She’s also begun to work with a therapist for her anxiety, so that has helped minimize her sleep paralysis episodes, as well.

Since I am an HSP, too, I’ve started following these healthy sleep habits along with my daughter: 

  • Avoid certain bedtime snacks. My daughter never fully outgrew the “bedtime snack” phase from childhood. We’ve learned, however, to be mindful of the food choices she makes closer to bedtime, as some foods serve as stimulants and make falling asleep more difficult. For example, chocolate, high-sugar snacks, and any food or beverage too high in caffeine are on the pre-bed “no-fly” list. Lower-sugar/higher-protein snacks, like natural nut butter with celery, oatmeal with cinnamon and almonds, or toast and natural peanut butter, keep her both satiated through the night and also don’t cause her to be unable to fall asleep. 
  • Create and follow a bedtime routine. Each night before bed, my daughter and I follow similar bedtime routines. (Experts call it “sleep hygiene,” but it’s the same idea.) This includes a hot shower, lavender body lotion, journaling, meditation, prayer, and then bed. This routine sends our minds and bodies a signal that it is time to wind down and reset for the night. HSPs crave time to reset and rest, and bedtime is a prime opportunity to create a routine that promotes mindfulness to encourage sleep. Going to bed at the same time each night, and waking up at the same time the next day, is also important. 
  • Cultivate a peaceful environment. HSPs can be extremely sensitive to excess noise and light, and I’ve found this to be especially true at bedtime. Each night before bed, I take the opportunity to unwind and unplug from the noise, lights, and distractions of the day (like no screens at least 30 minutes before bed). My bedroom — my HSP sanctuary — cannot be filled with too much sound or light. I aim to create an ambience of relaxation in my bedroom, which promotes sleep. 
  • Set some boundaries centered around rest, and stick to them. One of the best tools I’ve found in developing and sticking to a solid nighttime routine is nocturnal boundaries. In the past, once I’d start settling in for bed, I would think (and overthink) about the endless list of things I didn’t get done, like an extra load of laundry or forgetting to send a certain email. Or perhaps my kids would need me to read over an assignment for them. I would stay up all night to get everything done for everyone else. But …

… the result was me waking up tired and irritated the next morning, while my family members awoke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. (And HSPs are already exhausted enough all the time from our overstimulated minds.) To avoid forming resentment toward them, I established some nocturnal boundaries. 

For many years, the idea of boundaries caused me anxiety, especially as an HSP. “Boundaries” meant I would disappoint someone. “Boundaries” meant saying “no.” “Boundaries” meant putting my needs before other people’s needs. Guess what? Boundaries definitely meant all of those things, and they are all necessary to support our mental health (and to help us rest at night).

It wasn’t until I placed a solid boundary around when I would “log off” for the night — a time when work for the day was done — that I was able to emotionally detach from the things I felt I was “supposed” to be doing each night. Drawing that distinct line in the sand, denoting that my day had ended, has been key for me. It took a while, but I am now able to unplug once my day ends, realizing that anything I haven’t accomplished in one day would be there in the morning. 

Treatment for Sleep Paralysis 

Treatment of sleep paralysis involves targeting any underlying conditions that may be triggering episodes. Some treatment options include

  • Seeing a sleep specialist to diagnose possible sleep disorders
  • Improving sleep habits (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night)
  • Avoiding sleeping on your back; try out sleeping on your side or with more pillows elevating your upper body onto an incline. If you tend to roll onto your back in your sleep, try placing a pillow behind you so you can’t. 
  • Reduce alcohol consumption, especially before bed. 
  • Addressing any mental health conditions (like anxiety) which could be affecting sleep patterns. You can find therapists who understand and work well with HSPs via our partner, BetterHelp
  • In some cases, certain antidepressant medication can be prescribed

If you are experiencing episodes of sleep paralysis, you may want to consult your doctor to go over a potential treatment plan. 

As HSPs, it is vital that we prioritize our rest and create environments beneficial to achieving optimal sleep. And, let’s be honest: we could all do with a few more Zzzzs.

Want to get one-on-one help from an HSP-knowledgeable therapist? We’ve personally used and recommend BetterHelp for therapy with real benefits for HSPs. It’s private, affordable, and takes place online. As an HSR reader, you get 10% off your first month. Click here to learn more.

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