How To Handle The Holidays As A Highly Sensitive Person
Tips For Celebrating The Holidays On Your Own Terms
If you’re anything like me, you feel a mix of anticipatory excitement and anxiety around the holidays. On the one hand, I love the chance to be festive and celebrate with cherished friends and family. But the idea of a crowded social calendar (and facing literal crowds!) also makes me cringe.
I’m a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), so the holidays can be a lot to handle. My nervous system is more sensitive than the average person, which means I’m constantly picking up on energy and the moods of others around me. I like to think of myself as a kind of human sponge—I soak up even the smallest subtleties.
HSP, which is also known as sensory-processing sensitivity, is a personality trait that may affect as many as 20 percent of the population, according to psychotherapist and author Dr. Elaine Aron. And around thirty percent of HSPs are actually extroverts.
While there are definitely benefits to being an HSP—my sensitivity helps me be empathetic and hyper-tuned into how others are feeling—I can get drained quickly at gatherings and parties, feeling the urge to constantly meet others’ needs or resolve any perceived conflict or pain. Stimuli also heighten my senses, and I get easily overwhelmed by lights, blaring music, or loud chatter.
So what’s a social HSP to do? Here are a few strategies I use to celebrate the holidays on my own terms.
Set An Intention To Guide Your Season
Since HSPs are so deeply aware of everyone’s feelings, we often place other people’s needs above our own. When planning for the months ahead, take a moment to step back from all the “shoulds,” such as family expectations and societal traditions, and reflect inwards. How do you truly want this holiday season to take shape?
Clarifying a values-based intention for the season can be incredibly empowering, and tapping into your values (like connection, creativity, or comfort) can help serve as a guidepost as you navigate RSVPs and rituals.
Do you crave quiet coziness this season or new memories with friends and family? Do you feel excited about connecting with others during a large gathering, or would you prefer hosting a small group at your own home? Personally, I’m limiting my RSVPs for big, in-person gatherings, instead prioritizing virtual celebrations with faraway friends and creating special holiday rituals in my own home.
If you’re struggling to separate external expectations from your desires, try imagining yourself at an upcoming event. Then, sense if your body reacts with anxiety or ease. Do you tense up or feel a knot in your stomach? Or does your chest expand alongside a sense of lightness?
If you don’t receive a strong “yes” from your body, it might be a cue to reassess.
Calm Your Nervous System
During a season filled with hustle and bustle, we need to take extra care of our sensitive (and highly powerful!) brains and bodies—including our nervous system. A primary job of the nervous system is to scan the environment for safety. Based on its assessment of risk, it then prepares the body to react accordingly.
For HSPs, even exposure to ordinary stimuli can cause the brain to set off an “internal alarm system.” Calming down the nervous system looks like intentionally directing efforts toward soothing and stabilizing ourselves.
In the days leading up to a social event, make time for extra rest and limit unnecessary stimuli. I like to think of this as turning the dial on my body’s sensory input all the way down so that when a social event turns the dial back up, I don’t immediately hit my boiling point.
During activities and gatherings, you can intentionally work to keep your body from reaching a threshold of overstimulation. I’m a big fan of physically stepping away for a few minutes to get some literal peace and quiet, allowing the nervous system to settle back down. I promise, no one will notice you’ve slipped upstairs for a few moments! If you can practice a breathing technique while you’re there, even better.
After the event, I do everything to get out of my overactive headspace (which ruminates on conversations and what I could have said or done differently) to regulate my body. Soothing my nervous system might look like taking a long bath, doing breathwork, and grounding myself by spending time in nature.
My nervous system gets overstimulated while traveling, too, and the extra stimuli can be really draining. My biggest tip? Give yourself lots of compassion, acknowledging that this is hard for you.
Try to add in extra time on both legs of your trip for dedicated self-care, extra sleep, stretching or meditating in the airport, walk breaks on the plane, or a bath upon arrival. Also, maintain as much routine as possible to let your nervous system know it’s “safe” by keeping your favorite snacks or items with you.
Set Boundaries With Loved Ones
The holiday season is rife with potential emotional triggers for us HSPs, and it can be challenging to protect our inner well-being and speak up for ourselves.
One of my favorite strategies to prevent emotional burnout is limiting access to my time and energy. We can guard and spend our limited amount of “fuel” wisely.
Speaking up for yourself can go a long way in turning your sensitivity into a strength. You’re allowed to be direct about what you need—without hesitation, shame, or apology. It can be really helpful to reach out to family and friends ahead of time too, letting them know you may need to step away or that you’d love their help in meeting new people. Having conversations ahead of time can minimize the awkwardness or even embarrassment we sometimes feel when bringing something up in the moment.
Remember, your sensitivity doesn’t make you “high maintenance.” Although you might feel uncomfortable asking for what you need, know you’re also more likely to recognize the needs of others around you and help to honor them, too.
Finally, lean into the power of saying no. Though you might fear disappointing someone, you can only show up as your best self when you’ve taken care of yourself first. Every time you intentionally say “no” to something that isn’t going to serve you, you’re really saying “yes” to yourself.
Reconnect With Yourself
During months traditionally focused on group celebrations, don’t forget to nurture the most important relationship of all: the one you have with yourself! HSPs need time and space to process experiences and work through complex feelings. Try to carve out dedicated “you” time in your schedule to unwind but also to reflect.
Journaling is an excellent outlet to get back in touch with your innermost self and make sure that your needs aren’t being lost amid the many “shoulds” and aspirations of the season. Whether unpacking a family conflict or musing on nostalgic memories, writing can give you a place to process your past, be still in the present, and dream about your future.
I also try to limit my time on social media during the holidays. Information overload can contribute to a chronic, underlying sense of stress and a general feeling of FOMO that can confuse what we want with what others are doing. Screen-free, quiet rituals can help us recharge from social activity and care for our mind, body, and souls without numbing out.
Without an intentional approach, the holidays can quickly become more exhausting than exciting. Make sure to care for your delicate nervous system, give yourself ample time to rest, and find ways to honor the magic of the season that match your personal values.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you plan to navigate the holidays and nourish yourself during busy days. Share your stories and tips in the comments below!
Carolyn Rivkees is a DC-based writer and brand advisor focused on making well-being more accessible, less lonely and easier to understand. She is the voice behind Chronically Cheerful, an IG community that informs and inspires others living with health challenges. Read more of her writing over at her newsletter!