How Giving Up Alcohol Allowed Me to Reconnect With My Sensitivity

A highly sensitive person drinking alcohol

As a highly sensitive person, I realized I was drinking to feel less, but as a result, I was feeling so much more.  

My entire childhood, I knew I was wired differently. As an only child, I honestly never felt alone because my mind was my playground. My mother always joked that I was a low-maintenance baby. I would wake up from a nap and just sit in my crib looking at books all day… completely forgetting to cry for attention. I was — and am — wholly consumed by the visual world around me and would spend hours lost in my imagination. Little did I know my sensitivity trait would shape how I experienced the world. 

As I got older, things became harder. I noticed and felt everything around me, and I couldn’t hide in my little bubble anymore. Similar to other highly sensitive people (HSPs), I was severely bullied at school for being sensitive and labeled a crybaby. This quickly made me realize that feeling things so intensely would make me a target. This is when I noticed that I was an outsider, and in order to fit in, I’d have to always wear a mask. 

Thankfully, my mom allowed me to tap into my sensitivity at home. We’d sit in a room, turn off the lights, and I would finally open up about everything that was overwhelming me. Now I look back at this memory and realize why I felt so safe in those moments: I didn’t have any stimuli distracting me. I could finally breathe. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom had created an HSP sanctuary for me — and it was perfect.

But in the external world, I learned to numb the sensitive parts of myself: I evolved from being overly sensitive and dramatic to blocking myself from feeling anything at all. And even though I stopped outwardly showing my emotions, my internal dialogue was louder than ever.

Simply said: I lived in my head. For a long time, this manifested itself as anxiety. On one side, I was so full of life and passionate, but on the other side, I felt like there were termites racing through my brain. I realize now that a lot of my anxious thoughts stemmed from being so hyperaware… all the time. Body language shifts, sounds, overhead lights, temperature changes, energy shifts in the room — you name it, I felt it. 

Discovering My Sensitivity and My Coping Mechanism: Alcohol

In my recent wellness journey, I discovered a name for how I was feeling — that I’m a highly sensitive person — and it explained everything. I finally felt understood. It explained why I would sneak off from parties and sit in a dark room to catch my breath. It explained my constant light sensitivity migraines. And it helped me understand so many other things, too: why I shut down when multiple people talk at once; why I tear up at movie theaters from sensory overload; why I have a meltdown when I’m rushed; why I have to sleep with earplugs; why crowds overwhelm me; and on and on. It also explained the root of my social anxiety and why I always looked to vices — like alcohol — to help dim the deafening inner dialogue that consumed me. 

I started drinking when I was in my teens. Alcohol allowed me to temporarily get out of my HSP head. For a moment in time, I could have a sense of calm. When I was drinking, conversations were easier. I wouldn’t get so distracted by everything happening around me. “Sober me” would notice a subtle eyebrow twitch, mid-conversation, and completely shift my talk track to make the other person more comfortable. But “drunk me”? I could small-talk all night. My social anxiety evaporated, and I could finally be confident and carefree. I was still authentically myself — the outside world was just a little quieter, so I could live a bit louder.

Drinking My Way Into Adulthood as an HSP

As an adult, I noticed that I started to rely on alcohol more. And along my journey, I subconsciously linked socializing with drinking. First date? Had to be grabbing drinks. Awkward conversation at a party? Needed another beer. So here comes the double-edged sword… As someone who feels so intensely, my hangovers were beyond extreme.

I envied my friends who would binge drink, wake up with a slight headache, and joke about their hazy adventures. Meanwhile, I’d wake up with a dose of alcohol-induced anxiety that left me unable to function or think straight. While I only drank 1-2 nights a week, I always accidentally overdrank in an attempt to hold onto my state of mental nirvana. As a result, my hangovers were crippling.

Over time, I started to experiment with drinking and noticed a trend that I was a happier person when I didn’t drink. Avoiding alcohol kept the hangovers away, which then directly helped manage my anxiety. I ironically realized that I was drinking to feel less, but as a result, I was feeling so much more. So I decided to stop drinking and hop off the hamster wheel. This ultimately inspired me to deep-dive into my social anxiety and learn more about myself. I was terrified. But I was tired of feeling stuck… tired of the anxiety-ridden Sundays… and tired of the emptiness. And I missed feeling all my HSP feelings.

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Shockingly, Giving Up Alcohol Actually Improved My Social Anxiety

I had gone weekends here and there without alcohol, but never attempted a complete lifestyle shift. I was too scared to visit the places in my brain that I tried to desperately overshadow with a buzz. If my social anxiety took over, would I still be fun? Could I still let loose when I’m so tapped into everything happening around me? Would I still be able to comfortably talk to people I didn’t know?

What ended up happening surprised me: The more I listened to my anxiety, the more I learned about its core. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to understand how it’s all connected. I uncovered so much of myself within my journey of sobriety. I learned about my nervous system and how it works. I read books about psychology and wellness. Most importantly, I discovered I am an HSP and how that affects my life. After unlocking that puzzle piece, everything fell into place. And now, I embrace my sensitivity instead of shunning it.

Living My Best Life as an HSP Who’s Alcohol-Free

As I celebrate one year alcohol-free, I can confidently say that I have the strongest sense of self and purpose than ever before. Without alcohol, I’m no longer trying to quiet my inner dialogue — I’m leaning into it. My brain is slightly different, and that’s a gift, not a curse. Being an HSP allows me to have extreme emotional intelligence and cognitive empathy, which I love. It allows me to read a room and create a comfortable space for others. It allows me to get lost in the beauty of the world. It allows me to think creatively and solve solutions in less tangible, pragmatic ways. I can read people instantly with my highly sensitive intuition and build incredible relationships. My connection to my senses allows me to have passions and zone in deeply. It’s all a part of who I am, and I’m grateful for knowing this new version of myself more and more each day.

While being an HSP is overwhelming at times, I’ve found other tools — that don’t rely on alcohol — to help manage my sensory overload and social anxiety:

  • I’ve realized that less (really) is more. I no longer jam-pack my agenda. Rushed days without time to process and recharge are overwhelming, so I ensure my to-do lists are light and my plans are spaced out
  • Ambience is everything. I’ve discovered that warm mood lighting helps manage my light sensitivity and I keep a tidy home, too (which helps me feel more calm).
  • Environment is important. Loud bars cause me to shut down. Therefore, I opt for cocktail lounges or relaxed outdoor spaces when it comes to social gatherings.
  • I fit in lots and lots of solo time. If I know I’m going to be around a crowd, I take time beforehand (and afterwards) to charge my batteries. I typically get energy-depletion hangovers and feel drained from socializing — some may call this an “HSP hangover” or an “emotional hangover” (which I much prefer to an alcohol-induced one any day!). In essence, being alone allows me to reconnect with myself and feel whole again.
  • I communicate more — if I’m uncomfortable, I open up to my friends so they’re aware. This allows me to take the time and space I need to manage my sensory-induced anxiety.
  • I focus my attention better. With sensory overload, I get overwhelmed easily. Since I cannot multitask well, I pick what I want to focus on to create a safer environment. If I go to a concert, I solely focus on the music vs. trying to juggle listening and socializing. 
  • I check in with myself regularly. Whenever I’m in a social situation, I check in with myself to see how I’m feeling. Need to hide in the bathroom for a few minutes at a crowded party to breathe? All good. 
  • I gravitate toward conscious connections. Many HSPs prefer deep, meaningful conversations, and these help me focus on whatever we’re talking about while decreasing the volume of the outside world. 
  • I play. Creative play is where I feel most alive. It allows my brain to slow down and connect with my feelings. When I turn to something like art, I feel like I can finally relax. Being creative has become my new safety net and is something that comes naturally to HSPs, too.

Giving up alcohol and understanding how I’m wired has given me the space to uncover all of my layers. I was able to reconnect with the younger version of myself: the little girl who felt safe in her own mind and completely enamored with the world around her. 

Understanding who we are, and the software we’re born with, can unlock our lives. I’m in the process of understanding mine more and more each day, and as a result, I’m living more than ever before.

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