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Beyond Restless: Understanding Sleep Challenges for Highly Sensitive Persons

21st June 2024 - By Dr Luca Simione & Ilde Pieroni

About the authors

Luca Simione is an associate professor of psychology at the University of International Study UNINT, Rome, and a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies, CNR. His main interest is consciousness research and mindfulness meditation. He is also very passionate about sensitivity, as a phenomenal tool to understand human awareness.

Ilde Pieroni is a PhD student at Sapienza, University of Rome, in the doctoral programme in Psychology and Cognitive Science. Her research is mainly focused on sleep and dreaming, with a particular interest in the effects of mindfulness and sensitivity on sleep health and daytime functioning. She is also a qualified MBSR instructor and meditation teacher.


We investigated the relationship between sensory processing sensitivity and insomnia symptoms, testing the hypothesis that daily stressors would impact highly sensitive persons during nighttime. We found that heightened sleep reactivity explains the relationship between sensitivity and sleep disruption. This study holds potential for helping sensitive people overcome their sleep problems.

Stress and insomnia: a difficult relationship to break

Insomnia affects millions worldwide, leaving people exhausted and struggling during the day. About 30% of adults experience symptoms like trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, and feeling unsatisfied with their sleep. This leads to fatigue, reduced alertness, and irritability during the day (1).

Some people are more likely to develop insomnia due to certain predispositions, but these only manifest under specific environmental conditions, such as stressful events (2). These events are known as precipitating factors. Therefore, individuals with such predispositions and poor stress management might be more prone to insomnia symptoms (3).

Stress + Sensitivity = Sleepless Nights?

This pattern aligns with the characteristics of highly sensitive persons (HSPs), who react more strongly to environmental stimuli and are more likely to experience high stress levels (4). As a result, they may be at a higher risk for the development of sleep problems.

Although only a few studies have explored the link between sensitivity and sleep issues, they consistently show a significant connection. Higher sensitivity is associated with difficulty falling asleep (5) and more frequent nightmares (6). However, these studies haven’t specifically looked at how sensitivity and stress contribute to these problems, which is what our research aimed to explore.

Understanding the Link Between Sensitivity and Insomnia

Our research (7) focused on the idea that sleep problems in highly sensitive people are due to heightened sleep reactivity. This means they have specific difficulties falling and staying asleep when stressed.

HSPs tend to carry the stress they accumulate throughout the day into bedtime, making it harder to fall asleep. Our model suggests that the link between sensitivity and insomnia symptoms could be explained by sleep reactivity.

Study design and results

We studied 358 participants, most of whom were women with an average age of 34.75 years. They completed questionnaires to measure their sensitivity, psychological distress, sleep reactivity, and insomnia symptoms. We controlled for personality traits like neuroticism and sleep patterns.

Our findings confirmed our hypotheses, showing a positive correlation between sensory-processing sensitivity, sleep reactivity, and insomnia symptoms. In a more detailed analysis, we found that sleep reactivity fully explained the link between sensitivity and insomnia. This effect remained significant even after accounting for factors like age, gender, and personality traits.

Implications for Insomnia and Highly Sensitive People

Our findings have two main implications. First, they highlight the connection between sensory-processing sensitivity and sleep problems.

Knowing that highly sensitive individuals are more prone to sleep issues during stressful times can help therapists provide tailored sleep advice and assess sleep reactivity in HSP clients. Mindfulness-based interventions (8) and cognitive-behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can also be effective.

Second, our results enhance the understanding of insomnia. Poor sleepers and insomnia patients often have heightened sensory processing and sensory gating impairments, particularly around sleep onset (9).

Sensory processing sensitivity may explain some of these sleep-related issues. Future research should explore the role of highly sensitive persons in sleep science and clinical practice.

Practical Tips for Highly Sensitive People

A key takeaway is that addressing sleep-related difficulties specifically can help HSPs with insomnia. Their sleep problems are more related to carrying daily stress into sleep (sleep reactivity) than general stress levels.

Pre-bedtime meditation or relaxation techniques can be very effective for HSPs. These practices help release daily stress and reduce nighttime mental activity, improving daytime functioning and emotional well-being.


By understanding the complex connections between sensitivity and sleep, we can provide better support for HSPs dealing with sleep issues and advance the scientific study of insomnia.

In the quest for better sleep, there’s hope for discovery and healing. Continued research can lead to personalized sleep routines that help HSPs connect deeply with themselves and enrich their lives, both day and night.


  1. Morin, C. M., LeBlanc, M., Daley, M., Gregoire, J. P., & Mérette, C. (2006). Epidemiology of insomnia: prevalence, self-help treatments, consultations, and determinants of help-seeking behaviors. Sleep medicine, 7(2), 123–130.
  2. Morin, C. M., Rodrigue, S., & Ivers, H. (2003). Role of stress, arousal, and coping skills in primary insomnia. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(2), 259–267.
  3. van de Laar, M., Verbeek, I., Pevernagie, D., Aldenkamp, A., & Overeem, S. (2010). The role of personality traits in insomnia. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 14(1), 61–68.
  4. Benham, G. (2006). The Highly Sensitive Person: Stress and physical symptom reports. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(7), 1433–1440.
  5. Bas, S., Kaandorp, M., de Kleijn, Z. M., Braaksma, W. J. E., Bakx, A. W. E. A., & Greven, C. U. (2021). Experiences of adults high in the personality trait sensory processing sensitivity: A qualitative study. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 10(21).
  6. Carr, M., Matthews, E., Williams, J., & Blagrove, M. (2021). Testing the theory of Differential Susceptibility to nightmares: The interaction of Sensory Processing Sensitivity with the relationship of low mental wellbeing to nightmare frequency and nightmare distress. Journal of Sleep Research, 30(3), 19–22.
  7. Pieroni, I., Raffone, A., & Simione, L. (2024). Sleep reactivity mediates the relationship between sensory‐processing sensitivity and insomnia symptoms severity: A cross‐sectional correlational study. Stress and Health, 40(2).
  8. Ong, J. C., & Manber, R. (2011). Mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia. In Behavioral Treatments for Sleep Disorders (pp. 133-141). Academic Press.
  9. Bastien, C. H., St-Jean, G., Morin, C. M., Turcotte, I., & Carrier, J. (2008). Chronic psychophysiological insomnia: Hyperarousal and/or inhibition deficits? An ERPs investigation. Sleep, 31(6), 887–898.