6 Reasons the Holidays Stress Highly Sensitive People Out

A highly sensitive person holding her hands to her head to deal with holiday stress in front of a Christmas tree

Why does the holiday season need to be so “extra”?

Is everyone recovered from Halloween already? No? Well, too bad I guess, because it’s time for everybody’s favorite marathon: eight weeks of aggressive advertising, in-your-face holiday prep, and loudly proclaimed good cheer. Are you good cheered yet? Are you? You need to good cheer harder.

Look, I believe the holidays are special and magical. I love (parts of) the holidays. Growing up, there was nothing more enchanting than watching our house transform with lights and decorations, and almost bursting with anticipation for the big day itself.

And cookies. There was definitely nothing more enchanting than cookies.

As an adult, I love seeing people be kind to each other, and putting up the tree. But, dear God in the manger, why does the holiday season need to be so extra?

I guess the high-pressure, multi-sensory holiday onslaught must hit the spot for some people — or at least, I guess marketers think so. But, for me, I’d prefer a calmer holiday season. The hustle and bustle doesn’t enhance the magic; it robs it, like a Grinch creeping through the homes of the Whos down in Whoville.

And there’s a reason I feel that way. It’s because, like roughly 1 in 5 people, I’m a highly sensitive person.

Being highly sensitive means I was born with a nervous system that processes everything very deeply, from my thoughts and feelings to what I take in from the world around me. (Here’s how to tell if you are one, by the way.)

In general, being highly sensitive is a blessing — but not in loud, overstimulating, highly emotional situations.

Which, apparently, includes almost every minute of November and December.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the lineup.

“The holidays are holistic medicine for the human soul. But careful with the dosage, please.”

The 6 Ingredients of Holiday Season Overload

1. The fever pitch starts two months too early

First things first: I want to leave Halloween out of this, because it’s actually one of the more manageable holidays in my opinion. It puts my creative streak on full display. Something about making my own slightly-sardonic costume from scratch is far, far too satisfying to ever fall out of love with.

But Halloween does bear honorable mention because, apparently, it is now part of the Christmas Industrial Complex. I could barely find a skull or ceramic pumpkin all October long, because they were already crowded out by quaint little snow-covered model houses and miniature Christmas trees. Get your spook on in August, I guess?

And that’s the first step in the holidays being A. Bit. Too. Much. Anything fun (like the holidays) tends to be highly stimulating; anything joyful tends to be emotionally charged. My sensitive system can handle either of these things in small amounts, but when it goes on for three (or more?) nonstop months? That’s about the time my phobia of leaving the house kicks in.

To be clear, I know some people love playing Christmas carols in August and setting up their tree as soon as the calendar strikes November. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that — you do you.

What’s overwhelming is that all the stores, commercials and radio stations start in early, too. And they do this for no reason other than making more profit. The result is that department stores become a sensory/emotional megaphone, one that actually incentives me to avoid going shopping (nice work, marketers!). This doesn’t just last for a few special weeks, but for months at a time.

Which brings me to….

2. The holidays have become disconnected from the actual seasons

The ever-earlier start to the holidays doesn’t just wear me out. It also creates a disconnect between season and seasonality. Which is to say: Santa’s fur-lined coat is darling in December, but ghoulish in 70-degree September.

I know, I know, there are people in many parts of the world who have no sympathy on this one, because they’ve been doing Christmas under palm trees their whole lives. But I grew up seeing a beautiful symmetry between the seasons of the earth and our holiday traditions.

Halloween and its skeletons show up when the world is first darkening and seeming to die away. Thanksgiving arrives after the last of the harvest, when the fields are hard with frost. Rudolph and fur-suited Santa roll in on a sleigh, a type of vehicle that literally cannot function unless the world is covered in snow.

They fit, right? And I think anyone can appreciate the magic of a season that comes for only a short and special time.

But, as an HSP, I connect it to something deeper: I notice that the decking of trees with lights, the birth of a new hope for mankind, the lighting of a miraculous menorah, and a dozen other let-there-be-light traditions from around the world all happen when it’s, you know, very very dark. And the emphasis on good cheer, kindness, and giving each other gifts, why, that shows up just as seasonal depression really bares its claws. It’s almost like our species intuitively knows what we need and when we need it, and we make our traditions support that.

In that sense, the holidays are holistic medicine for the human soul. But careful with the dosage, please.

The marketers, of course, don’t care. If they can get a purchase at the tail-end of summer, or at least get their brands in front of you to sink into your unconscious, why should they care what your soul needs or why. Cash or credit, ma’am?

Speaking of which…

3. The things I used to hold in my heart are now just a sales gimmick

I know a writer who once had probably the coolest job in the world. He got to be Santa — not at the mall, but at an imaginary North Pole. He worked with a company where kids would send in their Santa letters, and Santa would actually write back. He literally wrote the words that they would receive from Mr. Claus himself (and sometimes a side note from Rudolph or the Missus). Sometimes, he said, he teared up as he wrote it.

I gotta admit, that’s pretty darn magical.

But there’s also the weird cost to these productions. Not just in dollars — you can believe the parents shelled out for this magical experience — but in our expectations. Every single part of the holiday miracle is now commoditized. You can buy apps, clothes, seasonal flavored lattes, home décor, funny sweaters you’ll wear one time, Menorah socks, lawn inflatables, rooftop Santa sleighs, oversized mangers, event tickets… need I go on?

No single one of these items is wrong on its own (okay, this pepperoni statue of Santa might be). But add them all up, and you have an experience where everything just feels “yuck.” Maybe so-called “normal” people don’t notice this, but as a highly sensitive person who picks up on the “vibe” of a situation, I notice when things are fake. No one wants to find out their boyfriend or bestie is only around because they’re getting paid; I feel the same way about holiday magic.

And that’s the thing, the magic is not there because you pay for it. The more it’s commercialized, the less the magic is there at all. I guess I wish we could all just calm down with the marketing gimmicks and the screamy-splashy Xmas sales. The less dopamine hits I get in a mall, the happier I am.

But at least we’re all nice to each other, right? Oh, wait — 

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4. It’s… oddly divisive, I guess?

I’m not gonna comment on the Merry Christmas Wars, except to say: A little empathy would go a long way, on all sides. And we HSPs excel at empathy.

Personally, I’m very sensitive to how people react to my words. As a result, my policy is to try to be conscious of the holidays that other people celebrate, wish them well in a way that will matter to them, and not assume they celebrate the same things I do. My other policy is that I sometimes slip up, and please don’t yell at me.

Why? Because the holiday season is supposed to be people coming together. It’s supposed to be goodwill to all humankind. It’s an excuse to be nice in a frankly not-very-nice world.

So, when I’m given two buttons to push, one labeled BE GRACIOUS and the other labeled THROW A FIT ABOUT HOW SOMEONE PHRASED THEIR NICE THING THEY SAID, I am deeply upset that people hesitate to push the right one.

And that’s true no matter what your preferred greeting may be.


5. The family situation (Moooooom, STAHP!)

I love my family. Most of them. A lot of the time. If I’m well-rested.

Which is kind of the point. For anyone, highly sensitive or not, I think family obligations are often a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s important that there are occasions that bring us together with loved ones; on the other, they often involve sibling rivalry, parental henpecking, opposing child-rearing styles, and the almighty Uncomfortable Political Convo (UPC).

The UPC is my least favorite part of any holiday gathering. That’s because, as a highly sensitive person, I check the following boxes:

  • We’re highly aware of other people’s anger (or discomfort)
  • We hate upsetting people
  • Yelling makes us anxious to the point of nausea
  • We don’t just “move on” when the arguing stops
  • “Good-natured debates” are often neither of those things, and we can see right through it
  • We thrive on harmony and, like a fragile flower, rougher conditions make us wilt

As a result, I absolutely Do Not Want to Be Around for the political outrage — especially this year. In my family, it often starts as indirect comments meant as bait or, worse, underhanded slights. When I hear these, I no longer wait until I’m ready to cry: I just leave the room (and I’ll take my plate, if need be). If my family ask me to stay, I’ve learned to say this:

“I want to stay too, but I don’t feel well when political debates start. Can we agree to table that topic until after dinner, and I’ll give you space for it?”

That will usually shut people up and, if not, I’ve found that turkey and podcasts are a perfect combination.

6. Everyone’s expectations are just A. Little. Too. High.

For me, this is what ties it all together. I could probably get through the whole morass of everything above if we just didn’t take ourselves too seriously. If we went into the holidays with a light heart, a light touch, rather than so much invested in it.

But that’s not how I see people doing the holidays. (And, yeah, I’m guilty of this, too.)

Instead, everywhere around me, people are piling pressure and demands and needs upon the holidays, absolutely insisting that everything be just so: the look, the events, the schedule, the gifts, even what people say and do. I honestly believe that if we invented a weather control device, we’d use it to get Christmas “just so” before we used it to solve world hunger. That gives me sadface, you guys!

And it’s this part of the holidays — the high expectations — that I have to admit is a joint effort. I do it to myself as much as anyone does it to me. I think we all do. And it’s this part that I think is hardest for many HSPs.

I remember a time when I was eight years old. I made the mistake of spending some of my gift money on something for myself — it was small — and not just gifts for others. My mom figured it out, and I started crying. I knew I had been “selfish.” I figured I should be ashamed.

My mom gave me a hug. She didn’t tell me I was greedy. She told me, “We all make mistakes.” Later, we baked cookies and I made sure to include some with all my gifts to my friends. The holidays had been fixed.

Highly sensitive people: We don’t have to do the holidays the way everyone else does them. We don’t have to put the pressure on ourselves and others. We don’t have to live up to those expectations ourselves, either.

When the holidays are overwhelming, give someone a hug. Tell them they’re okay. And for the love of Saturnalia, bring them some gosh-darn cookies.

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