Why Are Vacations So Exhausting for Highly Sensitive People?

A highly sensitive person looking overwhelmed as she enters a large crowd on her vacation

All too often, vacations turn into one big source of overwhelm for highly sensitive people. Here’s what an HSP expert says on making your trip relaxing instead.

Has this happened to you?

You spend months — or years — planning the perfect get-away. You’re finally taking a much-needed break from work or the kids. You’re going to explore that place you’ve always dreamed of visiting.

Bliss and relaxation will finally be yours.

But then the long-awaited vacation arrives, and you feel anything but relaxed. In fact, you feel downright exhausted, frazzled, and stressed. This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.

Let’s explore why travel can turn into one big source of drain and overwhelm for highly sensitive people (HSPs) — even though they’re drawn to it. I’ll also share some tips from an HSP travel expert to help you make vacations relaxing again.

Why Highly Sensitive People Are Drawn to Travel

Although travel can be overwhelming for HSPs, there are plenty of good reasons we’re drawn to it. Losing yourself in a faraway place is magical. And not only does travel capture our imagination, but it’s also rich with opportunities for meaning.

Highly sensitive people are “often drawn to the sense of meaning and inevitable transformation that comes from experiencing a new part of the world,” HSP travel expert Melissa Renzi told me. Renzi leads HSP-focused retreats to places like Thailand, Peru, and Guatemala.

And, because HSPs are deeply in tune with their senses, “travel can be enriching as we take in the details of our surroundings. And sometimes, when we step into unknown territory, we feel greater permission to be ourselves.”

If travel is supposed to be magical, why do HSPs often end up stressed?

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HSPs Process Everything Deeply — Especially in New Surroundings

For HSPs, the stress usually begins before they even leave the house. That’s because, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person, HSPs process all kinds of stimulation deeply. This causes them to think deeply about things and to look at issues from many different angles.

And this can lead to stress and anxiety when getting ready for a trip.

When planning a trip, there are so many things to consider — where to stay, what to do, what to pack, etc. HSPs process everything deeply, and the details of their trip are no exception.

Not only do HSPs think about all the fun they’ll have on their vacation but also about all the things that could go wrong. What if it rains? Will I be safe? Will my shoes be comfortable? And on and on.

Pre-travel anxiety can shut down our wildest vacation dreams before they even take flight. Or, at the very least, it can leave us worn out before we even reach our destination.

The Problem of Overstimulation for HSPs

If we manage to actually get out the door, HSPs then face overstimulation at their destination.

“Travel situations with an abundance of sensory stimulation can overload the HSP’s nervous system,” Renzi explained.

That’s right, travel can actually be quite unpleasant for HSPs.

Highly sensitive people pick up on subtleties in their environment — again, it has to do with their depth of processing. They notice little details that others might miss, from the way the sunlight looks on an early autumn morning to the anger emanating from a pair of strangers having a fight.

Noticing these subtleties enriches the HSP’s life, often making them highly creative. But when you notice every little thing, it can add up fast.

Highly sensitive people tend to find comfort in routine and familiar environments because familiarity is less stimulating. When you’re vacationing in a new place, all that familiarity goes out the window.

Highly sensitive people aren’t the only ones to experience tiredness and stress while traveling. This well-documented phenomenon has been dubbed “travel fatigue” or “vacation overwhelm” by others. But for HSPs, due to their depth of processing, it can be even worse.

Too Many Things to Do, Do, Do!

A final reason vacations can be exhausting for HSPs has to do with this familiar problem: We only have X days here, so we have to make them count!

When you book the trip of a lifetime — paying all that money, taking all that time off work, and spending all that time planning — you feel compelled to make the most of it. You dash from one tourist spot to the next, intent on not missing a thing.

And while all that busyness would tire anyone out, it’s especially wearisome to HSPs, who need plenty of downtime to recharge from the overstimulation they face. Often, they’re the ones coming home saying, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!”

How to Make Vacations Relaxing Again — the HSP Way

So what’s a highly sensitive person supposed to do?

Travel doesn’t have to be exhausting. Here are five tips from Renzi:

1. Avoid over-scheduling by making deliberate choices.

Think about the environments that feed you. Then think about the environments that drain you. Does a casual stroll through an art museum sound relaxing, whereas partying at Oktoberfest sounds like a nightmare? Make deliberate choices about your travel destination and the kinds of activities you’ll do once you get there. The choices you make on your trip should make you feel good.

2. Tell others about your high sensitivity.

When traveling with others, be upfront about your needs. HSPs often feel the need to hide their trait. But casually sharing in conversation that you’re an HSP does a few things:

  • It sets the stage for having your needs respected.
  • It offers a chance to dispel myths about high sensitivity.
  • It serves as a bridge to deeper conversation (something HSPs crave).
  • It helps us find other HSPs, which can lead to new compatible travel buddies and relationships.

Not sure how to talk about your trait? See our guide to explaining high sensitivity to those who don’t “get” it.

3. Narrow your list of “must-sees.”

Simply put, busy environments and crowds can overwhelm the sensitive person’s system, so give yourself permission to skip them. Try choosing just one or two tourist hotspots then calling it good.

4. Build buffer days into your vacation.

And make them non-negotiable. You might make the first day after arriving at your destination a buffer day. Or the day after the trip is over, where you’re doing nothing but recovering.

Your buffer day might mean relaxing in your hotel room and ordering room service. Or doing an activity on your own (being alone lowers your stimulation level). After the trip, it might mean unpacking, cleaning up, and getting some R&R.

Here’s the trick: The only way to get your buffer day is to firmly schedule it. It won’t just magically happen, so this is the time to be your own advocate.

5. Give yourself permission to change plans. 

Even when you build downtime into your trip, it may not be enough. You may need to let go of some things and adjust your plan when necessary to take care of yourself. When we allow our trip to adapt to us instead of the other way around, we can find ourselves in a much more meaningful experience.

Want a vacation that’s actually HSP-friendly? Try this HSP retreat in Thailand

Want to take the stress and drain out of travel, and experience what it’s like to travel with other HSPs? Renzi still has upcoming retreats in some of the most stunning spots in the world — in a setting that honors your HSP needs for downtime and calm. The next retreat is being held amidst the stunning natural beauty of Thailand(!).

So what is it really like to travel with other HSPs?

“It was an acceptance I’ve never felt before in my life and I’ve been searching for since I was a kid,” said Marian M., who recently returned from one of Renzi’s retreats. “It was reinforcement that there are people out there who understand.”

Get $50 Off Your HSP Retreat

Surround yourself with infinite rice fields of northern Thailand, as you connect to cultural traditions at a gentle pace that allows you plenty of time to absorb your surroundings. This is a wonderful opportunity to travel with people who will honor your alone time and your ways of connecting without social pressures.

Takes place November 4-12, 2023 near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Get $50 off with the code HSR50.

Click here to learn more.

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