Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person at a holiday gathering

6 Holiday Problems Only HSPs Will Understand

Between gift shopping and endless amounts of small talk, the holidays can be a challenging time for HSPs. But scheduling in alone time can help.

When you think of the holidays, what comes to mind? Perhaps images of Christmas trees, menorahs, snow, and lights? What about holiday movies, caroling, and cups of our favorite steaming beverage? Or perhaps, feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, and chaos? Chances are, if you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you’re familiar with all the above. That being said, there are certain problems around the holidays that HSPs often face. Here are some common ones.

6 Holiday Problems Only HSPs Will Understand 

1. All the pressure, from gift shopping to endless amounts of small talk

Most people hold the holiday season near and dear to their hearts. And while the holidays are associated with feelings of joy and harmony, this can paradoxically lead to greater pressure for things to be perfect. This is even more true for HSPs due to our people-pleasing nature

Unfortunately, the pressure of the holidays can often exacerbate our anxious thoughts and feelings. What gift should I give this person? What if someone else gives it to them? What if they don’t like it? Ugh, another paty I need to attend? I’m so exhausted, but I don’t want to disappoint anyone… They expect me to be interesting while making small talk? How do people do that? Okay, time for me to open this gift– I need to make sure I show them I like it, especially since everyone is watching me. Was my reaction big enough? Was my “Thank you, I love it” good enough? What if they don’t believe me and think I’m grateful and I upset them? 

HSPs want to do our part to make everyone’s holiday experience the best it can be. But this constant pressure can start to weigh on us and detract from our enjoyment of the holiday season.

2. Having to engage in uncomfortable conversations, like “Why are you still single?!”

Most everyone is familiar with the cliché of the family fight during a holiday dinner. Well, clichés are often clichés for a reason. And even if they’re an exaggeration, many folks can relate to engaging in, or at least witnessing, difficult conversations during the holiday season. 

Perhaps there’s something about the merriment that makes your older relatives wonder when you’re going to settle down and get married, have children, get a promotion or another job, develop a cure for cancer… These questions can be awkward and exhausting, especially for us HSPs, who don’t do well with uneasy situations. Not to mention, heated debates about controversial topics, such as politics, religion, even masks and vaccines. Unfortunately, over a year after the 2020 election, we’re still just as divided as ever. And simply by being in the room among these arguments, HSPs can feel the tension to our very core. Speaking of which…

3. Being emotional sponges and soaking up everyone’s emotions 

Between the holiday fights, the screaming children, and everyone’s overall energy, the holidays can be an emotional time. This is challenging for HSPs to navigate, as we are emotional sponges who soak up other people’s feelings. And because all the holiday parties and time with family means more interaction with people, subsequently, HSPs are more susceptible to emotional contagion. (We also have to watch out for emotional vampires who can suck all our energy from us!)

Not to mention, because the holidays are so centered on togetherness and family, this time can also highlight loneliness and exacerbate feelings of loss. Indeed, after almost two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will be missing our loved ones. Feeling all these feelings can be overwhelming for us HSPs since we’re already emotionally sensitive.

4. Experiencing way too much environmental stimulation

Due to our sensory processing sensitivity, HSPs are deeply impacted by our environment, making the holidays a particularly strenuous time. Since many of us travel to visit our loved ones, we are outside of our familiar HSP sanctuary. This can be problematic not only because we are in a space that isn’t our own, but also because we have little to no control over factors such as lighting, temperature, scent, noise, and visual stimulation of the area, all of which can significantly contribute to our sense of ease (or lack thereof). 

Even if we stay in our homes, when relatives come to visit, we are still giving up control of our environment when they bring in their belongings, don’t clean up like we would, and don’t follow our household rules, even if unknowingly. Further, the holidays mean more get-togethers, which means more time spent outside of our homes, once again, in environments outside of our control. This much time away from our HSP sanctuaries leads to overstimulation. 

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5. Having our schedules change

HSPs thrive having a solid schedule. So when our routine is altered in any way, we are likely to feel thrown off-balance. Traveling for the holidays is time-consuming and leads to jetlag, or at the very least exhaustion from the journey. Since we will have a lot on our holiday to-do list — such as buying gifts, wrapping those gifts, decorating, going to get-togethers (plus time spent getting ready), and preparing for hosting and cleaning up afterwards — we will likely have less time for our usual self-care activities. And with so much to do, sleep will likely be compromised, which is even more essential for HSPs. All of this results in overstimulation. 

6. Just too much to do overall

Speaking of holiday to-do lists, there is simply too much to do over the holidays. All the parties, people, celebrating, travel, and small talk — these can all be an HSP’s worst nightmare. On top of all of this, typically there isn’t adequate time for HSPs to be alone and decompress as we so desperately need to. Our poor sensitive nervous systems are overstimulated and stretched beyond our limits without time to slow down, rest, and recharge, resulting in an “HSP hangover.” And when we are feeling miserable like this, it steals away from what is supposed to be the joy of the holiday season.

Ways to Combat Holiday Stress

Given these holiday problems HSPs are likely to encounter, it is important that we take care of our sensitive souls as best as we can. Here are my therapist-recommended tips on how to best take care of yourself during the holidays.

  • Prioritize sleep. Getting enough sleep is crucial for HSPs since our nervous systems need more rest from the overstimulation we experience. Do your best to make sleep a priority by setting boundaries about when you will call it a night and how early you are willing to wake up in the morning.
  • Schedule in alone time to do a restorative activity. The constant to-do of the holidays can lead to overwhelm, especially given how much of it is spent with other people. Try to schedule in alone time to decompress while engaging in a restorative activity, such as reading, taking a bath, or meditating. It’s important to remember that we can’t be all things to all people — it’s okay to set boundaries, even during the holidays.
  • Try to adhere to your normal schedule as much as possible. Although it’s basically inevitable that the holidays will interfere with our usual routine, it is worth it for HSPs to make an effort to adhere to our schedules as best as possible. This helps to ground us and provide a sense of normalcy.
  • Give yourself permission to excuse yourself. When the going gets tough, you don’t have to stay! If someone tries to engage you in a conversation you don’t want to have, politely change the subject or tell them that topic is off-limits. If there is too much stimulation around you, find a place to destimulate alone (perhaps a bathroom, an empty bedroom, or outside). 
  • Take advantage of the holiday coziness. Some aspects of the holidays seem as if they were made for HSPs, given the sense of coziness they provide. Light your favorite candle, wrap up in a warm blanket, listen to the crackling of a fireplace, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate or apple cider, or bundle up for a walk in the snow.
  • Utilize holiday movies for get-togethers. With the abundance of get-togethers, it is nice when we can make them more low-key. Watching movies is a less stimulating activity, and most holiday films are HSP-friendly, as most are not known to be action-packed or violent (unless you’re one of those folks who counts Die Hard…) Some favorites include It’s a Wonderful Life for a hopeful message, Elf for a good laugh, and The Muppet Christmas Carol for nostalgia.
  • If traveling, bring objects that remind you of home. Because traveling means we won’t be in our HSP sanctuaries, bringing items from our homes can help ground us and provide a sense of calm. This might include a cherished photo, a relaxing essential oil, or your favorite foods.
  • Have a buffer day. Since most of the holidays are dedicated to being with others and doing activities, before you go back to work, try to set aside a day to just be. (You’ll probably have an “emotional hangover” and will need this alone time.) This means if you are traveling, arrive home two days before you resume your job in order to provide yourself with a buffer day. This gives you more time to readjust, unpack, run errands, do chores, plus breathe and relax. 

The holidays are a special time of year, but they can also bring stress and unique problems for HSPs. Learning how to get through them as a sensitive person is essential in being able to access the joy of this season. 

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