Highly sensitive? Here’s how to stop your emotions playing havoc with your sleep

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 27-year-old child and adolescent psychodynamic therapist learns how to stop her highly sensitive nature working against her.

A little about me:

Age: 27

Occupation: child and adolescent psychodynamic therapist

Number of hours sleep you get each night: 7-10

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: 9

Do you grind your teeth/have nightmares: I clench my teeth and have anxiety-producing dreams every night. The dreams vary in intensity (in terms of the narrative) but are always extraordinarily vivid and come in mass numbers each night. I often wake up in the morning remembering not only one or two dreams but more than five, all of which encompass some anxious series of events. I’ve tried dream analysis and dream journaling but this only intensifies my dreams and causes me to remember more details upon awakening. 

I’ve tried spending no time on my dreams in the morning but they are so intense that they feel more like memories, so I’m emotionally impacted by them well into the morning and the content of the dreams pops up in my mind throughout the day. 

I’ve had this since I was a very young child— I remember significantly impactful dreams all the way back from when I was five years old. I deeply admire and respect the role that dreaming plays on the psyche and part of me really appreciates the relationship my mind has with these unconscious messages and symbols. I don’t want to stop dreaming, I just want to get a better hold of it. I feel like my dreams are in control and I’m just along for the ride, and I’d like to flip that around so I can feel rested in the mornings and throughout my day.

Do you measure your sleep in some way (e.g. using a phone or wearable): I have done this in the past and as recently as last year. It has helped to use apps that measure my REM cycles and wake me up in a window of time after I have completed one. It just doesn’t help in the area of trying to get to sleep and stay asleep.

How much water you drink on average per day: 2-6 16oz cups per day

How much caffeine do you drink on average per day: none, I only drink water and decaf tea.

How much exercise do you do on average per week: I think I should be doing more. I live in the city so I walk everywhere and use 6-12 flights of stairs on a daily basis. I currently do yoga one to two times a week but would like to increase that to every day.

Day 1

I get home from work at 8pm (a common finishing time because I have later sessions with children/teens after they are out of school). I’m exhausted. My loving partner starts making dinner while I clean the kitchen. We have egg wraps with tomato, cucumber, avocado, and cheese (I tend to avoid meat), and talk about our days over the meal. I share my emotional state after work— it was a rough day.

I watch some TV and then my partner and I take our cats out in the apartment hallway to explore (they love this). We do that with tea and alternate between chatting and sitting quietly while we laugh and observe the cats’ exploration. Afterwards we go inside and turn on calming music while we get ready for bed.

I start taking melatonin for the first time (5mg— suggested by my psychiatrist). I start my period. I wash my face, brush my teeth, fill up my humidifiers, and cuddle for 15ish minutes before turning off the lights around 12:30am (my partner is on his phone, but I lie on his stomach and looking at the cats who are across the room. I try not to be on my phone before bed because I know it will keep me up).

I fall asleep within the next hour, tossing and turning to find a comfortable position that doesn’t upset my stomach. I wake up twice throughout the night, once to go to the bathroom and once when my partner gets up for work. I fall asleep soon after. 

“My partner and I take our cats out in the apartment hallway to explore (they love this).”

Day 2

I wake up at 9am to my alarm (I usually snooze 3-4 times) feeling more rested than usual but still groggy. I feel nauseous, which has been going on in stints for about five days now. I turn on the lights and lay in bed with my cat while sending out some work emails and getting ready for my 11am parent meeting. I stay in bed until 10:20am doing this, and have some decaf tea and a banana before heading into my office.

I get home from work around 7:30pm. It’s Friday and my partner and I have friends over. They’re already there when I get home and we order Thai food before eating around 8:15pm. We have a glass of wine and just sit and talk with them until they leave around 10pm. It was really nice catching up with them and we wish they could’ve stayed longer.

My partner and I listen to music, play with the cats, and sit and talk with each other for a little while until bedtime. We are both really tired from the week. I feel particularly anxious and I can pin point why. Next, we get ready for bed – I take 5mg melatonin, wash and moisturize my face, braid my hair, brush my teeth and turn on the humidifiers. My partner gives me a little massage before bed but I still feel tense.  

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I struggle to fall asleep for the next two and a half hours. I toss and turn and can’t get comfortable. When I finally fall asleep, I wake up continuously throughout the night. I have a handful of vivid dreams. They start out very negative and scary. I have a bad headache each time I wake up.

Eventually my dreams go from nightmares to very happy dreams. I dream about my family and connection and laughter, and harmony between every animal and being in my world. I dream within dreams. My alarm goes off and I keep snoozing so I can stay in this world – it’s perfect.

Day 3

My partner and I cuddle into the morning until I get out of bed at 10:30am to start my day. My headache is nearly gone. We have tea and I shower and then eat some leftovers for brunch.

My partner and I spend nearly all day budgeting. We are setting up financial goals for ourselves and getting a baseline on our take home cash each month so we can start planning for the future. I enjoy planning with him (we are talking about engagement, house buying, having kids, etc.) but the budgeting side is stressful and more his forté than mine.

We have more leftovers for dinner with lots and lots of water. We head over to a friend’s place around 9pm to catch up and play games. It’s very connective and fun, and we get home around 12:30am. I follow the usual bedtime routine, including 5 mg melatonin, and I am in bed and asleep by 1:30am.  

“We head over to a friend’s place around 9pm to catch up and play games. It’s very connective and fun, and we get home around 12:30am.”

Day 4

I wake up the next morning at 10:30am feeling rested. My partner and I eat eggs for breakfast and go grocery shopping.

We have a slow evening, watch a movie, make a tuna casserole for the week, play with our cats, and settle into bed around 11pm after doing our normal bed time routine (including the melatonin). I sleep through the night but have a ton of dreams which are highly active and vivid.  

Day 5

I wake up at 9:30am and even though I feel mostly rested it’s hard to get out of bed. My mind is racing with dream content and my cats are being extra cuddly. I fall back to sleep and wake up at 10:15am. I drag myself out of bed to get ready for a meeting.

I get home from work around 7:55pm. I make a tofu and veggie wrap for dinner and do some sketching while my partner does some work on his computer. I play with my cat for a while and then make some tea around 10pm. I continue sketching and then get ready for bed around 11pm, which includes taking my 5mg melatonin.  

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I wrap up some writing while my partner gives me a foot rub. I’m in bed by 11:20pm, but I have a really hard time falling asleep and staying asleep. It’s like every time I’m just about to fall asleep, I wake up, either from a little noise or an itch or something else. I’m in and out of sleep throughout the night, waking up over seven times and drifting for a while before actually falling asleep again.

I wake up properly at 9:30am and lay in bed for a while, recounting the most vivid dream I had, wiping off my grogginess and stretching. I’m out of bed by 9:50am for a 10am Telehealth appointment (my own). I make a peach mango and chia seed smoothie for breakfast and clean the kitchen before prepping for my first work meeting for the day. 

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “What an interesting diary. What jumps out at me is that you are a highly sensitive and empathic human being hence the vivid dreams. Fascinating as this is, I can see how exhausting this is for you and I feel for you.

“I am grateful that you have some great supports in place – your partner, your cats, good friends. You are under the care of a psychiatrist and are taking nightly melatonin but I am also wondering if you regularly see a therapist yourself – someone you can talk to? I imagine given the nature of your work that you’re having some form of supervision to support you in doing your work, but I feel you also need a space to explore your own emotional issues which are spilling over into your sleep.”

Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina continues: “I would like you to think about your own sleep hygiene and habits – ideally you shouldn’t measure your sleep as you already have enough of your own anxieties and this is likely going to make them worse.

“You could also benefit from going to bed earlier and may need to refer to my five non-negotiables – in particular, the importance of pre-midnight sleep. This might better set you up for more restful sleep throughout the night. You seem to be a night owl but I would be very interested to see what would happen with your dreams if you were to go to bed earlier, rise earlier and eat breakfast as soon as you get up.

“Finally, and this might sound a bit ‘woo woo’, but do you ‘cut chords’ from your young clients at the end of sessions? It’s absolutely vital to establish good boundaries when doing this sort of work, particularly if you are an empath.” 

If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email [email protected] with your age, using ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Other images: Getty

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