Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person in a stimulating social environment

How to Thrive in Stimulating Social Environments as an HSP

Using these tactics, you can thrive — not just survive — in stimulating social environments as an HSP.

If you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP), you probably read the title of this article and wondered how it’s possible: How can HSPs possibly thrive in stimulating social environments? And, you know what? I get it. 

Well, consider this, how research has shown that while HSPs are more susceptible to displeasurable sensory input, we are also more susceptible to receiving the benefits of enjoyable sensory input (which also means increased capacity for recovery). It is under this idea that I have found ways to enjoy large social gatherings — even just for a few hours — and better sustain myself if, and when, the stimulation becomes overwhelming. 

So, below, I’m going to give you real, actionable steps that I take to better prepare myself for large social events as an HSP and set myself up for the best experience possible. And you can, too.

7 Ways to Thrive in Stimulating Social Environments as an HSP   

1. Do as much preparation as you possibly can

One key to doing well in stimulating environments is to prepare — both mentally and physically — as much as you possibly can beforehand. If I know I have a large social event on a given day, I try to make sure that the rest of the day will be relatively slow and/or soothing for my nervous system. Then, about an hour before I leave for the event, I meditate (preferably outside) and engage in energy work practices. First, I feel myself connect to both earth and spirit through my spinal cord. Then, I imagine earth elements filling in any holes in my energetic field and envision a beautiful pink bubble of love surrounding and protecting me. Doing this energetic work beforehand has been a game-changer for me, and there are a variety of techniques that you can employ if you’re unfamiliar with the practice.

I also prepare for an event via spiritual scheduling. To each their own, but for me, I notice a big difference in how I take in sensory and emotional input during different phases of the monthly cycles (both the moon’s and my own). So I try to avoid scheduling long social events within a day or two of the full moon, as well as toward the end of my premenstrual phase and the beginning of my menstrual phase. These tend to be the times that I feel most “spongey” to external input, so if I do have to fit something in during these time frames, I make sure to choose environments and people that I feel extra comfortable with whenever possible.

2. Scope out the place as soon as you arrive

The moment I arrive somewhere, the first thing I do is a “vibe check.” As overused as the phrase is, HSPs tend to pick up on the subtleties of their environments deeply and quickly. This gives us the advantage of being able to detect the most friendly people, areas, and objects for our nervous systems from the get-go.     

For me, these spaces are usually farthest from the music and alcohol, and closest to any plants and comfortable seating areas. If you are unable to choose your seating, try to locate a sensory input that is pleasurable to you and come back to it as often as necessary. This could be a silky tablecloth, the fruit water in your glass, or a beautiful piece of art in your line of sight.    

3. Engage: Focus your attention on certain people or activities

I know, it might sound counterintuitive to engage with people or other types of input (like sounds, tastes, or sights). But if you  focus on ones you like, it will improve your experience. 

I’ve often found that while the overall atmosphere of a large social gathering is overwhelming, when I focus my attention on one person or activity, other input becomes somewhat peripheral. I think of it as a sort of “flow state,” if you will. If you are in a particularly stimulating area (i.e, one with lots of noise), you can also ask whomever you are talking to if they’d like to move somewhere else. People say “sure” more often than you think!

4. Take lots of breaks — they will help lessen any overstimulation

Regardless of how much fun you’re having, it is likely that you will eventually need a break (or five). Sometimes, it’s easy to step outside and get a breath of fresh air. If this is the case, it’s even better if you can find a dirt or grassy patch where you can take your shoes off and connect to the earth. After all, nature makes highly sensitive souls happy.       

If this is not the case, I’ve often found solace in taking an extended bathroom break (individual rooms are better, but a stall can work, too). This is where a well-packed purse can come in handy. These are my purse must-haves:

  • Water and healthy snacks (as I am sensitive to spicy + extra sugary foods)
  • Lavender essential oil (talk about calming)
  • Flower essence remedy of your choice 
  • Phone charger (to ensure car playlists can be played to, from, or during the event)
  • Hair tie (putting my hair up if it gets too warm is a simple and effective way to decrease or prevent overstimulation)
  • Grounding stones or crystals (great to hold in your hand if you start to feel overstimulated)

So when you’re on a break from socializing, apply your lavender oil and hold a piece of the earth in your palms! I like to practice the emotional freedom technique (EFT), too, wherein you tap various energy “hot spots” on your body while reciting a phrase such as “I am safe.” The tapping helps you access your body’s energy and sends signals to the part of the brain that controls stress. I also like to practice conscious breathing during my breaks to calm my nervous system and recenter. Pro tip: When you wash your hands, imagine any unwanted energy falling down the drain — works like a charm!

5. Have go-to phrases ready to make leaving easier

When we highly sensitive souls need to leave a social gathering, we need to leave. We’ve had enough and just want to be alone! After all, we want to avoid getting an “HSP hangover”! So it helps to have some go-to phrases ready:

  • “Thank you so much for inviting me. I need to get going to (insert commitment here), but it was great seeing you!”
  • “I have a long drive back tonight, but I want to thank you for having me at this lovely event.”
  • “I’m feeling a bit tired and have to get up early tomorrow, so I’m going to get going. Thank you so much for the time and energy you put into this gathering. I hope I see you again soon!”

With these in mind, you won’t get even more overwhelmed trying to think of reasons to leave. (You can also have these written down on a piece of paper in your purse or in a Notes app in your phone!)

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6. Schedule in alone time afterwards

We sensitive types need alone time after we’re overstimulated — there’s nothing we love more than holing up in our HSP sanctuary to do something calming, like reading a book or taking a nap.

In order to figure out what you need after a social event, listen to your body. After a particularly stimulating social event, I tend to feel one of two ways — exhilarated or exhausted, depending on what kind of event it was. Usually, the first occurs during smaller events if I happen to connect with someone in a really profound way and am feeling excited to have meaningfully connected with someone. Either way, though, neither feeling falls within a state of regulation, so it is important for me to tune into my body and feel which direction I’ve swung to guide my rest and recovery process.

A few months ago, for example, I celebrated my college graduation with my close friends and family the day before Mother’s Day. Needless to say, I had to sit in a quiet room by myself the following Monday to decompress from two days in a row of social activities. Usually, I try to avoid this by scheduling out multiple days in between long social gatherings and by limiting them to 1-2 times per week when possible. This helps decrease my sense of overstimulation a lot. In cases when this is not possible, I try to schedule in time for a restorative practice — like yoga, tai chi, or a simple meditation — before jumping from one activity to the next. Speaking of which…

7. Have a post-event decompression method ready

I find that what I do to decompress after an event all depends on the type of social event I just attended. For instance, if I’m all keyed up afterwards and feel jumpy or antsy, the sensory information that my body tries to process can be too much to bear. The first thing I will do in this situation is literally shake it out. A great way to do this is to jump around and let your arms flail without trying to control a single muscle in your body. Similar to how your dog periodically shakes off extra stimulation, I’ve found that this freeform movement has a similar impact on us humans. I also make an effort to breathe slowly and choose slow-to-mid tempo music for the car ride home so that my nervous system can re-regulate back to center.

However, if I’m feeling depleted, I’ll use another technique to restore my HSP balance. I can always tell I’m depleted when I feel tense and dried up — figuratively, I feel like sandpaper that’s been stripped of inner and outer barriers and resources. The first thing I will do in this situation is move my body in a more flowy way — think Phoebe Buffet — to allow any tension to start to shift, and I will combine this movement with some EFT.  

Drinking water is also very helpful in this situation, as it literally feels like my body becomes rejuvenated with this life-giving liquid (our bodies are around 60 percent water, after all!). I also imagine myself breathing in vital life force energy and exhaling all tension, and will often drive home in silence (but if I do choose to listen to something, Essie Jane is usually my top choice).

Or, I’ll take an “HSP recovery bath” — here’s how:

  • Take a physical shower and imagine the day washing off
  • Take a warm bath with Epsom salts and your favorite scents
  • Take an energetic shower — either in the physical shower or somewhere else you feel comfortable — and practice some of the energy techniques described above
  • Take a forest bath and feel any excess energy compost into the earth

All in All, Do What Works Best for You

Although it may take some trial and error, soon, you’ll know which decompression methods work best for you. The bottom line? Curate what you can, and trust that these choices will help you enough to move resiliently through what you can’t. While it may not be easy, learning to thrive — and not just survive — in these stimulating social environments is possible for us HSPs. So, the next time you’re invited to a large social gathering, prep your schedule, pack your toolbox, and enjoy the party.

Fellow highly sensitive people, what are some ways you thrive in socially stimulating environments? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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