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Highly Sensitive for the Holidays

How to cope with a largely nonsensitive world at a sensitive time.

Key points

  • Being highly sensitive during the holidays can bring unique challenges.
  • Highly sensitive people feel deeply and process the emotional energies in the room and may become rapidly drained and exhausted.
  • Strategies to endure the holidays when it feels like too much include not judging yourself, self-care, and connecting with friends.
Pexels/Zeeshaan Shabbir
Source: Pexels/Zeeshaan Shabbir

It's supposed to be a time when we give thanks, spread good cheer, and congregate with the ones we love. And, yet, it's also a time when two weather fronts collide: those who are highly sensitive people (HSPs) and those who are not.

HSPs feel deeply and process the emotional energies in the room and become rapidly drained and exhausted as a result. Think of a phone with many apps running whose battery is constantly at 5 percent.

HSPs think deeply about what they are picking up and constantly attempt to make patterns out of it. Why? It's the saving grace of a psyche that's such a receptive instrument—when you register so much ambient noise, you are constantly inspired to make more interesting music out of it.

HSPs have a responsive nervous system. They are quick to startle and are sensitized to the blood-sugar changes that lead to "hanger." Non-HSPs falsely describe them as reactive because they are unaware of the rich context of the HSP's world, just as many humans are less tuned in to a dog's keen sense of smell.

How can HSPs get through the holidays without getting overstimulated and feeling badly about their deeply sensitive nature during a time that can be sensitive enough already?

1. Don't Judge Yourself. HSPs Are Rare

When you're at a holiday gathering and the lights feel just too bright, or the energies bouncing off you in the room feel like you're the cue ball doing a perpetual break shot with all the people at the table, take a step back for a moment and remind yourself of this: HSPs only make up 15 to 20 percent of the population.

This means in a lineup of 10 people, you're only likely to find one or maybe two people on average who get what it's like to be highly sensitive. That's not a lot, which means you are within reason to feel frustrated, misunderstood, and hurt when the others in the room don't get you, can't tune in to the needs that make you feel most at home, or make your evening a nightmare that you can't wait to recover from on your own.

2. Remind and Find What You Need as an HSP

It's easy to just go along with the non-HSP way of doing things, but remember that this never really works for you and isn't really fair. Whether it's being around large groups of people for extended periods, being surrounded by too many loud noises like Thanksgiving football turned up to 100 on an enormous television, the bright fluorescent lights blaring in your face, or a Christmas tree with a strobe effect of changing colors, know that you have the right to find an HSP alternative.

This could be taking some time in a private, quiet room for a little break from the party or going for a walk outside to have your senses readapt to a natural—rather than an artificial—habitat. You could take some time to read, so you take your senses inward rather than having them continue to be bombarded outwardly. You can find a quieter corner of the room or one-on-one conversation that's connecting but not overstimulating.

Whatever you choose, the most important piece is to remind yourself that being highly sensitive is okay and wonderful. I love the way Becky Kennedy talks about having highly sensitive children whom she affectionately calls "Deeply Feeling Kids." Remind yourself that you're in that tribe of deeply feeling kids and that you deserve to be treated with nurturing parenting just as any other kid.

3. Phone a Highly Sensitive Friend

Since it's not very likely that you'll be surrounded by HSPs all the time, it's helpful to have a highly sensitive friend, family member, or significant other you can literally call when you need them. It helps to be reminded that you're not alone. It also helps you to process and download so much of the emotional energy you've been absorbing and need to put into form. Sometimes it doesn't even take more than a 10- or 15-minute conversation—phone or text—to just feel refreshed and seen again, so you don't feel like such a weirdo, as many of us HSPs have grown up feeling. Whether from non–highly sensitive parents, teachers, friends, or significant others, many HSPs have their fair share of stories that have made them want to disown rather than embrace themselves.

4. Make Art, Especially Out of Your Sensitivity

Sometimes it helps to lean into rather than suppress your high sensitivity. There's nothing as therapeutic as putting your energies into some kind of creative form, whether it is writing, drawing, music, or any other medium that allows you to tap into the flow of your energy again. It's especially helpful to release the excess energies staying with you that you need to get out. Use that high sensitivity to comment on what you are experiencing now.

Any creative medium can express and contain the intensity and richness of what you feel, see, and hear. The artistic product will be a witness. It will organize you and celebrate you in ways you won't expect, transforming the tangled-up jumble of raw sensation into something of new aesthetic beauty.

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