For highly sensitive people, alone time isn’t just about being alone. It’s how we keep our brains from short-circuiting.
I recently moved across the country — new city, state, and time zone. It’s been an exciting time filled with new plans, a lot of help from family, and a new home to decorate.
As a highly sensitive person (HSP), it’s also reminded me of how important it is for HSPs to have alone time, especially during significant life changes.
In the transition before my husband and I moved, we briefly lived with my parents. It was delightful in many ways — we all got along well, were still able to continue life and work as usual, and did some fun things together.
But, many evenings, I would feel overwhelmed and on the verge of tears about the smallest of things.
One night, after an emotional workday, I couldn’t bring myself to sit down to dinner with everyone. As I heard everyone down the hall laughing and chatting about the day, I closed my laptop and quietly crossed from my makeshift home office space to the bedroom. Sitting back on the bed, I wrung my hands together and stared into space, replaying and overthinking a client conversation in my head while thinking about how the week had gone.
I knew that if I’d gone into the kitchen, I wouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation or answer a question about how my day went. I didn’t want to talk about my day, but I did need to process it without any external stimuli or distractions.
Younger me would have been confused as to why everything was upsetting me more than usual during this time, why I felt so anti-people, and why I was so tired. But because I’m very familiar with what being a highly sensitive person means by now, I soon realized what was going on: I was deficient in alone time.
For HSPs, Solitude Equals a Healthy Mind
Interacting with others when my brain is trying to work through something feels like I’m short-circuiting — all my energy is tied up in that one thing I need to process. And until I can quietly go over the scenario, what I’m feeling — and what has happened or is happening in my head — everything else is too much.
Everyone can relate to the challenges that come with change, work stress, or sharing a living space with others. It’s normal to be more emotional or stressed during a big transition.
But I couldn’t help but notice that my husband didn’t seem to struggle in the same way. And I’ve lived with other people before who always seemed more “on” socially, able to come home from work or school and have a chat or hang out in the living room all evening.
I’ve noticed that other people can become tired, stressed, or overwhelmed with life, but they’re able to process their day while around others.
But in the context of being an HSP, needing alone time to think deeply is so normal. Without proper processing time — alone — it’s like my brain can’t move forward with my day-to-day.
And here’s why.
Alone Time Helps HSPs Process Life
Highly sensitive people process everything more deeply than other humans — they experience everything from sights and sounds to social interactions and emotional reactions more intensely. And nearly 30 percent of the population is highly sensitive, so it’s not as uncommon as people think.
When you’re highly in tune with everything (and everyone) around you, it’s natural to become overstimulated — and easily overwhelmed. Something that is par for the course, like daily conversations with coworkers, can quickly become draining for an HSP.
We need downtime to recover from the constant overstimulation. Science shows that HSP brains are more active in areas that involve deeper information processing. So add in a significant life change or something emotional an HSP needs to work through, and the need for alone time to process is even greater.
Here are four main reasons why highly sensitive people need more alone time.
4 Reasons Why HSPs Need More Alone Time
1. HSP brains don’t take vacations.
HSPs are constantly processing the world around them, even when their brains are “at rest” and not focusing on anything specifically.
I remember someone once telling me how they practice clearing their mind regularly, and my HSP self was thinking, “Say what?! You can do that?” It feels like my mind is always going on some sort of tangent about life, what’s happening in my environment, a conversation I had earlier in the week, or where I see myself in five years.
We sensitive people might feel like our minds rarely take a break because we have rich inner lives. If you’ve ever had trouble “getting out of your own head,” you might get what I’m talking about. When something out of the norm happens, or an HSP is going through a challenging time in life — or just a big change, even if it’s positive! — they often need extra time and space to mentally work through it.
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2. Humans are distracting.
Simply being in the same room as other people means there will be more stimuli. You’re aware of others’ movements, the possibility of them needing something from you, and the knowledge that a conversation could break out at any time.
HSPs also tend to be sensitive to senses like smell, touch, sight, and sound. When my mind is working through something, I can get rattled by someone lightly touching my arm, chewing food, walking around the room, or making a quick comment. It breaks my train of thought, and I often feel bad about this because I know it can seem persnickety to others. (Thankfully, understanding what it is to be highly sensitive has helped me recognize why this can make me so irritable and that escaping for some alone time is often the solution!)
When HSPs are alone, we don’t have to hold space for other people as we evaluate our current thoughts and feelings. And then, when we do spend time around loved ones, we can jump in more refreshed and present.
3. HSPs like to handle their emotions in silence.
Highly sensitive people don’t like the thought of burdening others with their problems. Because we can feel others’ emotions and pain, we know how heavy it can feel. We often prefer to handle things alone because we must process them before verbalizing them.
I once waited weeks to tell my family that I broke up with a boyfriend of several years because I just needed to think through the situation first. I wasn’t ready to share those emotions with others and open myself to their thoughts and opinions.
Honestly, the process of sharing what happened and explaining it to others felt more exhausting than the breakup itself: It’s like I was having an “emotional hangover.” I needed to decide how I felt about it first, so I would lock myself in my room or go for a drive and spend hours going over the situation in my head, again and again.
Solitary time lets us cry, journal, listen to the right music, and remove distracting stimuli — whatever we need to process and think deeply.
4. Unstructured thinking time is self-care for HSPs.
In her book The Empowered Highly Sensitive Person, Julie Bjelland recommends the following amount of downtime for HSPs:
- Eight to 10 hours in bed daily
- Two hours per day of unstructured alone time (meditating, reading, outside in nature, etc.)
- One complete day off per week
- One week off for each season
I love the emphasis on daily alone time. I think we can often feel guilty for needing so much time to ourselves. I’ve certainly felt like there was something wrong with me before — worried that I was anti-people or just not “tough” enough to handle my emotions in front of others.
But now, I recognize that alone time is essential when you’re an HSP, particularly when there’s a lot on your mind. In fact, deep thinking is one of the most becoming traits about highly sensitive people because it can lead to life-changing ideas, thought-provoking conversations, well-thought-out life decisions, and beautiful art. Alone time to process is like self-therapy for HSPs, keeping us grounded and at peace — and, when we’re not alone, being the most present and stable when we show up in the world.
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You might like:
- The Science Behind Why Highly Sensitive People Need Alone Time
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