How My Super Sensitive Senses Ruined My Sleep
Updated: Aug 1, 2018
For as long as I can remember I have been cursed with being a light sleeper. I recall first noticing it as a young teenager. I spent many waking moments at sleepovers wondering why I could only manage a light doze whilst my friends let out the peaceful light snores of deep slumber. Sleep just didn't come as easily to me as it did to others. It felt like a mysterious, random force, like super-intellect or double-jointedness, that favoured some people and not others.
In this post I recount the three periods in my life where getting quality sleep proved elusive, take a closer look at the causes, and share my ideas for creating an optimal sleep routine.
Some people just seem to be naturally better at sleeping then others....
As a teenager, I remember observing my toddler brother fall asleep in the middle of playing with his cars. He was on his knees enthusiastically enacting car chases, and within a few minutes had literally drooped forward until his head touched the ground. He managed to remain precariously balanced in sort-of face down foetal position. It was perplexing and enviable that he was able to sleep so solidly in such awkward circumstances; lights on, lying on top of his matchbox cars, bottom up in the air.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I'm an HSP – Highly Sensitive Person. In layman's terms HSP is defined as having a hypersensitive nervous system. Psychology Today defines it as 'a heightened sense of smell or touch and, say, zero tolerance for itchy fabrics or sudden sounds—reflecting a low threshold for sensory input.' You can read more about HSPs in my post How Being HSP Affects Me.
Childhood sleepover sleep-deprivation.
My heightened sensory input is exactly the reason I have an excellent memory for the smallest details from my childhood. It's from these well-coded moments that I now understand exactly why I slept so poorly at sleepovers. Aside from the over-stimulation of being around excited friends and consuming way too many sugary snacks, there are a myriad of other details which retrospectively were the cause of my sensory overload and subsequent difficulty sleeping.
At a sleep-over, pretty-much all five of my senses were assaulted over the course of the evening. Watching films late and the bright standby lights from radios and LCD clocks lighting the room. The sounds of an unfamiliar place including one sleepless night caused by the squeaking hamster wheel of an overly energetic hamster. The overpowering smell of wet dog from the thick living-room rug I was sleeping on. The taste of over-indulgence from sugary treats I wasn't normally allowed to eat. The touch of creeping cold coming up from the concrete floor through the carpet and into my sleeping bag.
In hindsight, it's clear that I could have certainly improved my quality of sleep, if only I had had the knowledge and the resources to do so.
Sadly, this knowledge was only something I developed in my late twenties, which means I spent too many nights in my younger years feeling anguish at the prospect of another poor night's sleep.
Diary of a stressed teenager.
Despite living in the blissfully dark and quiet countryside, my sleep quality got considerably worse when I was thirteen years old. I was in the middle of a tough time at school after falling out with my best friend who subsequently set about ostracising me from our group of shared friends. Rejection is difficult at any age, but at such a sensitive time such as puberty it felt crushing. I was very stressed and felt utterly powerless to change the situation. I vividly recall wondering why, with my head full of upsetting thoughts about school, it took an hour or two for me to fall asleep each night.
When I did finally drift off, my sleep was fitful and I would awake never feeling well rested. I was also roused easily by the slightest gurgle of the hot water tank next to my room, the various nightly bathroom trips by family members and our cats having loud, screechy fights outside my window.
The next day I dragged myself from lesson to lesson just looking forward to my next opportunity for some shut-eye, only to have the same thing repeat the following night.
Looking back, there are several things I had the ability to do which could have eased my anxiety and set myself up better for bedtime. I could have dimmed the lights and created a more restful atmosphere in my bedroom. I should have put on some soothing music and used my essential oil diffuser more often, especially the lavender oil. Before going to bed I should have made myself a nightly cup of warm milk and turned the radiator down in my room. My parents liked to keep the house very warm, and I often woke up feeling stuffy and hot. Above all, I could have worked on some psychological strategies to deal with my stress, such as the distraction of a good book and writing down my thoughts before getting ready for bed.
Admittedly, such self-awareness at that age would have been impressive. That said, I had unknowingly begun to apply the concept of sleep-debt by deliberately sleeping in longer on weekends and during holidays to make up for lost sleep. This became my strategy until my stresses at school eased.
Sleepless in the city.
My sleep quality took another drastic nose-dive when I moved out of my parents quiet country abode into the city to attend university. It was an assault on the senses I was utterly unprepared for.
The halls of residence I lived in during term time was located on a busy, street lit boulevard. I did my best to blot out bright shafts of light that beamed in as though the building was under siege, but to no avail. It was so light at night time it even confused the local bird population. Until this point in my life, I had never heard a dawn chorus throughout the entire night. I witnessed first-hand how severe light-pollution meant the sky never got completely dark.
Loud noises were also a nightly occurrence due to the various shenanigans of the resident students – from accidental fire alarms, loud music, to shouted conversations, and even the hammering on my door by random drunks actively enjoying making a disturbance. I felt a mixture of awe for their unbounded energy to stay up all night and sad bewilderment by my own attachment to sleep.
Holiday time was a blessed escape and much appreciated opportunity to catch up on lost ZZZs.
University, it turned out, was not 'the best time of my life'. The lack of control I had over my sleep environment turned it into something I had to endure instead of enjoy. My sleep deprivation took a physical toll leaving me suffering constant head-aches and exhaustion. Then came the psychological implications of feeling hopelessly unable to socialise into the small hours like many of my fellow students. After all, what normal young person doesn't want to out painting the town red all night, every night if given the opportunity?
Lack of quality sleep changed my personality from bubbly and out-going to feeling like a total killjoy and a failure as a young person. It was further compounded by the isolation I felt being the only one who valued their sleep and alone time as much as I did. I constantly wrestled with the question why I was the only one who was having a hard time of it, when everyone else thought it was a total blast.
Ultimately, if university taught me one thing, it was that my sleep-time is utterly and shamelessly sacrosanct.
Taking charge of my sleep, sense by sense.
Fuelled by my university experiences, I made a concerted effort to find simple and effective ways to improve my night-time environment. The good news is that through a combination of understanding and coddling my hyper-vigilent senses, my sleep has improved and I feel immeasurably better for it.
Experience has taught me the importance of taking the 5 senses into account when creating a nightly routine for better sleep. Here are my suggestions:
Dim room lights and screens about 1-1.5 hours before bed to signal to the brain it’s time for rest. Avoid harsh lighting whilst preparing for bed.
Set black-out curtains, shutters or blinds correctly to avoid any bright shafts of light waking you too early.
For noisy locations use a white noise generator to ‘blank out’ sudden or distinctive noises which may rouse you.
For quiet locations soothe yourself into blissful sleep with timed relaxing music.
Consider a gentler alarm to wake you, like a simulated sunrise clock or under-pillow/wrist vibration alarm-clock.
Infuse your room with a scent you associate most with relaxing and contentment.
Try lavender: A scientifically proven effective sleep inducer. Lavender may slow the activity of the nervous system and inhibit several neurotransmitters.
Keep your bedroom between 15.5C – 19.5C (60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit). Cooler temperatures mean we fall asleep faster and into a deeper, more restorative sleep.
Wear comfortable night clothes and choose bed sheets that are luxurious to the touch like Egyptian cotton or silk.
Avoid going to bed hungry or feeling too full. Consume any large meals 2-3 hours before bed so your stomach can empty.
Save Caffeine and alcohol for during the day. Caffeine can stay in the body up to 6 hours and alcohol anywhere between 4-6 hours. Both are disruptive to quality sleep.
Good quality sleep is not necessarily something that just happens, you have to make it work for you. And it doesn't necessarily involve investing vast sums in the latest sleep technology, becoming obsessed with sleep monitoring apps or taking copious pills. Take what you will from my suggestions, as we are all different creatures and have individual requirements.
For a more comprehensive list of ways to improve your sleep, check out my post 10 Tips For A Better Night's Sleep. It's packed full of ideas to improve your sleep hygiene and night-time environment.
Have you had problems with your sleep and were surprised by the solutions? What is the simplest thing you have done to improve your sleep. Let us know in the comments section below; we'd love to hear your thoughts.