Not everyone is meant to drive for 16 hours straight.
As a sensitive person who has logged thousands of miles driving across the country, I’ve had more than my share of few roadside meltdowns. I identify as a highly sensitive person (HSP), meaning I fall into the 20 percent of people who react more strongly to whatever is around us — our environment, our pace, our comfort level, and yes, the emotions we notice in ourselves and others. As you might imagine, that can make long days stuck in a car more than a little tough. (Think noise and traffic, long hours, disrupted routines, irregular meals, strange hotel rooms, and the mental fatigue of driving. Travel can be a recipe for overstimulation and overload!)
And yet I personally love road trips. They can be a feast for an HSP’s imagination — a long drive can offer us beautiful scenery, quirky roadside monuments, glimpses of wildlife, and lots of time for thinking (or having deep conversations with travel companions). These are all things that appeal to our deep, thoughtful minds and our sensitivity to the world around us.
So how do you get the good parts without the bad?
As a road trip aficionado — who also happens to be highly sensitive — I’ve developed strategies for minimizing stress and maximizing inspiration on a road trip. Now, I don’t just survive long drives, I thrive creatively on the road and have produced a small collection of poems about car travel. Road trips, I’ve found, can even have real advantages for HSPs: you get to set your own pace and take in moments of beauty that you might otherwise fly over.
So I invite you to join me (metaphorically, at least). If you’re planning to hit the road for some post-pandemic travel, here are four strategies to help you stay rested, nourished, and grounded — and able to enjoy the adventure.
4 Keys to a Happy, Relaxing Road Trip for HSPs
1. Reaching your destination FAST is not the goal
I know people who like to reach their destination as fast as possible, even if it means driving for 16 hours straight and/or pushing the speed limit. I’ve even traveled with such people on occasion — and found that my body gets achy from sitting still, my mind gets exhausted from watching the landscape whiz past, and I get carsick or burst into tears after 12 hours. (These are common reactions for highly sensitive people who feel rushed and hurried.)
So my personal maximum is 8 hours of driving per day, preferably 5-7. I can drive (or be a passenger) for 8 hours and then it’s time to stop (even if it’s still light out and my destination is just a few hours away). Your limit may be different, but it’s worth treating it as a firm maximum. HSPs need time for processing experiences and sleeping. It’s much more fun and relaxing to break a long trip into 2-3 days and arrive rested than to do the drive in “one big push” and arrive needing a week to recover from the journey.
I’m also a huge fan of staying in the slow lane, obeying the speed limit, and giving the car in front of me a safe following distance (this might be an HSP super power!). Not only is this safer for me and other drivers, it’s also easier on my nervous system and gives me time to process all the traffic and scenery that I see.
2. Bring your routines — and your HSP sanctuary — with you
One of the biggest reasons travel is hard for HSPs is because it disrupts our routines.
So, I break a cardinal rule of travel: I don’t travel light.
Instead, I’ve learned that I’m a much more comfortable HSP when I have what I need to adjust to my environment. This means I always bring a rain jacket and extra layers in case of cold weather (or air conditioning). And it means that I travel with a portable white noise machine so that I can tune out strange noises in my hotel room.
Likewise, a few years ago, I realized that I was having trouble falling asleep while traveling because I didn’t have my familiar bedtime ritual of brewing chamomile tea and jotting down thoughts in my journal. I bought a travel kettle to pack on my next trip and not only slept better, but also use the kettle to make coffee for my morning writing routine. Having this small thing that I needed made a huge difference. I was able to wake up rested and write a poem about driving through the mountains.
And I think this is why HSPs tend to be good packers. We’re often aware of our own needs and capable of imagining what we might need or want in the future (or remembering what worked or didn’t work in the past). We can recognize what’s truly essential to us and what we can leave behind for a little while. Always bring what you know you need, including elements of your HSP sanctuary — whether that’s a favorite blanket, a bottle of your usual shampoo, or your go-to art supplies.
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3. Stop often — but choose the stops that offer beauty and peace
Zipping along at 65 mph can be very ungrounding, especially while your body is sitting in complete stillness. So I like to stop every hour or so (even if I don’t need the bathroom) for a short walk and stretch break. Three to five minutes of walking and stretching help me reconnect to the natural environment—by noticing new smells and changes in temperature—and to my body. These little breaks wake me up and reduce mental fatigue and muscle tension. They also encourage me to hydrate and snack when I need to. By stopping often and before I urgently need to, I avoid having to pull over for a long recovery stop later in the day.
But not all stopping points are created equal. I love the state-maintained rest stops along US highways because they offer picnic tables, bathrooms, and green space without the need to exit and reenter the highway or navigate a crowded restaurant parking lot. Any kind of rest area or scenic lookout usually will provide a more relaxing and more efficient stop (especially if you are traveling with a dog). I generally avoid exiting in towns unless I really need to buy gas or supplies.
4. Pack the meals that keep you balanced. You won’t find them at a gas station.
It’s easier to be efficient (and to avoid getting stuck in a lunchtime crowd) if you pack your own meals/snacks in a cooler. This is also a good way of ensuring that you’ll have food that truly nourishes you. My digestive system doesn’t handle fast food well and I find drive-thru windows stressful and depressing (all those idling cars polluting the air). If I bring my own food supplies (usually a mix of healthy fruits/veggies, nuts, sandwiches, and chocolate treats), I always get what I want. Sometimes I also pack a picnic dinner for my hotel room so that I can rest and write in my journal rather than driving around an unfamiliar area in search of food. (Ordering a delivery or letting a more restless traveling companion pick up takeout could also be good options.)
Beside my cooler, I always like to keep a gallon of water. This way I can refill my water bottle (and my dog’s bowl) as often as needed and have extra water for a quick face wash if I want to feel more alert.
I think the open road is beautiful and offers a sense of solitude and freedom that may be even more valuable to sensitive people than it is to others. And, when we take care of our needs and slow down, HSPs can thrive on road trips — and even find that they are a way to recharge.
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