Sleepless in Sensitivity Land

Nov 17, 2016 | Blog

According to Elaine Aron, the researcher considered to be the primary reference for high sensitivity, highly sensitive people need more sleep than the average person.

It makes sense. Because our nervous systems are more frequently on high-alert and are more easily stimulated, we need more time to recharge.

That…was not exactly what I wanted to hear, though.

Since I was old enough to have conscious thoughts (let’s say….five?) I have had trouble sleeping. Thoughts could keep me awake for hours. I can remember times when, in kindergarten, something a child said to me seemed to keep me thinking long into the night. Why was he so mean to me? Did I do something to make him angry? I don’t get it!

This was especially problematic at slumber parties. I hated staying the night at other kids houses. I wanted to join in. I wanted to be a part of a group. But I knew that come nightfall, other kids would drift off to sleep easily and I would be left staring at my surroundings, counting shadows, cataloguing every noise and picking up on every unfamiliar smell. It was exhausting. I couldn’t wait to go back home.

Naps were no different. I can remember being told to go and take a nap. I wanted to. But I couldn’t sleep. So I lay in bed for what I thought was an appropriate amount of time. Then I got back up to play.

I knew, somehow, that the grownups wanted me to nap because there was something about my behavior that was off. Was I cranky.? Or maybe just a little fussy? Well…maybe if I went out there and pretended to be upbeat and joyful, they would think I napped.

It worked.

That was the start of my ambivalent relationship with sleep. I can’t ever remember a time when sleep came easily to me. Even just lying down, I would be made hyper aware of my heartbeat. I remember setting my head down against the pillow, preparing to sleep on my side and hearing the steady “thump, thump, thump…” and thinking it was footsteps from somewhere. I would start and jump out of bed only for the footsteps to diminish. It took several instances of putting my head down and back up to realize it was just my own heartbeat beating into the pillow. I was hearing it into the pillow.

Does that even make any sense?

At any rate…as an adult, it hasn’t changed. I have improved my sleep (through a rigorous exercise routine, no caffeine, close attention to what I eat, meditation, yoga therapy, sleep hygiene and a number of gentle sleep aids that I resort to on occasion). But it still isn’t necessarily reliable. Sleep isn’t my constant friend so much as she’s my secret crush. I love it when she is near, but she often seems painfully out of grasp.

I know lifestyle has to have something to do with it. For example, having two to three jobs at any given time doesn’t exactly help (at least, I don’t imagine it does).

The thing is…I’m not sure if this is a high sensitivity thing…or just a me thing. But they feel related. I know that I sleep much better when I’m not overstimulated. When I have a routine down and in place…that helps. Knowing I don’t have to get up early the next day also seems to help (which is ironic, because I naturally seem to get up between 5am – 7am anyway).

It’s sort of like this. When I have taken steps to reduce the amount of stimulation in my environment, and I am taking special care of my body, sleep is more likely to come. When I am able to sleep, I’m also able to handle more stimulation during the day. It’s like my shield is up and I have more capacity. But if something gets thrown off, my sleep is one of the first things to get impacted. And once I don’t get enough sleep…all the rest crumbles apart. I gradually turn into a puddle of emotional putty. Everything seems hard. Everything feels overwhelming. Every element of stimuli in my environment feels like an avalanche of sensory data. Every conversation feels forced.

Quickly thereafter, I notice the symptoms of adrenal fatigue start to set in. A pattern of “tired but wired” builds on itself, and it takes a long time to kick it back into a place that feels right for me. If left unchecked…my symptoms start looking an awful lot like depression.

In a nutshell, it’s enough to make me want to crawl back into my bed right now and pull the covers over me and hide. Just thinking about this is making my heartbeat escalate and is reminding me of how tired I am.

I haven’t been sleeping especially well this week, so this is part of why I’m writing about it. It’s also why I’m not exactly writing about it well. 

But I digress.

I’m just curious…If you identify as an HSP…is this something you can relate to? Do you ever have challenges sleeping at night? I can’t seem to find any specific research on it. What are your thoughts?