Oh the fantasy of traveling abroad. Many of us dream about lying on the beach with a book, or eating exotic cuisine, or roaming carefree around a city while the summer sun freckles our noses and a sultry breeze blows our hair back.
Despite the thrill and fun of travel, it can also be quite stressful and demanding: Rushing to catch the train, the overwhelming noise and lights of busy stations, unfamiliar territory, and pressure to make the most out of every second of the day.
Travel can be especially exhausting for highly sensitive people (HSPs) because these pressures feel particularly overstimulating. Being both an HSP and a full-time traveler, I’ve had plenty of practice at making travel as calm and peaceful as it can possibly be. Here are some of my top tips so that you can do the same.
8 Ways to Make Travel More Palatable for HSPs
1. Leave plenty of time.
HSPs hate being rushed. Because we process things deeply, we can become unpleasantly overwhelmed when we feel the pressure of time constraints. This can make catching a flight, train, or bus even more stressful, especially if we’re in a new city and don’t know our way around.
Always leave more time than you think you need, and aim to be out of the house well ahead of schedule. That means different things depending on where you are: Maybe you need to plan a few extra hours during rush hour, or maybe you just need a solid 30-minute bubble to walk to the station.
Whatever the case may be, making sure you have plenty of time to get where you need to go takes a lot of pressure off, and can help you avoid the dreadful feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’re not sure that you’re going to make your flight or train.
2. Pack plenty of food.
Some people get angry when they’re hungry, but HSPs really do get hangry. We’re particularly sensitive to blood sugar changes, which means that feeling hungry impacts us more than it does non-HSPs.
It’s easy to get caught without lunch in the throes of a long journey. Since we know that getting hungry makes us feel irritable, vulnerable, and faint—none of which is helpful when you’ve got places to go and people to see—always pack some emergency biscuits (or granola bars or snacks) in your backpack to avoid a food-related meltdown.
3. Bring noise canceling help.
Not only are HSPs extremely sensitive to noise, but we are also extremely sensitive to the energy of other people. That can make being thrown into an overcrowded station along with its lights, unbearably loud announcements, and endless streams of stressed out people a perfect storm of HSP anxiety.
Earplugs or noise canceling headphones can really help reduce the audio input and therefore calm down our frazzled nerves. And if you’re worried about visibility, you can get small, subtle earplugs that are hardly noticeable, or blend right in with all the other people wearing over-the-ear headphones these days.
Perhaps you could even download some calm meditative music or affirmations to play through the headphones to help soothe your overworked nervous system.
4. Avoid rush hour.
This may seem obvious, but I’ve been caught off guard countless times when traveling abroad. Focusing on the train, plane, or ferry journey ahead, I tend to forget the part of the journey that I’ll need to take to actually get there—from home to station.
The last thing you want is to be stuck on public transport—like the subway or a bus—or in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Try to arrange transport which leaves and arrives outside of rush hour to make the whole experience calmer and less unpleasantly arousing.
5. Come prepared with breathing techniques.
Breathing techniques and meditation can be extremely useful tools to help calm down an overworked immune system. Many HSPs feel vulnerable, triggering a release of adrenaline as the body prepares for ‘fight’ or ‘flight.’ As useful as this can be in a real emergency situation, the adrenaline can lead to unnecessary anxiety for the HSP.
It might be difficult for you to meditate in a crowded place, but we can always match our breathing to our footsteps to make sure we are breathing slowly and deeply, as well as distract ourselves from some of the external stimuli, which we are constantly analyzing for threat.
Try breathing in for every four steps, then breathing out for every five. Slowing down our breathing also slows down our heart rate and helps to calm the body and the mind.
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6. Travel light.
HSPs like to be prepared, which can give us a tendency to overpack. This can be really useful when everyone else has forgotten their toothpaste and wants to borrow your spare socks, but it can also make the practicalities of travel more stressful than it needs to be.
Only take what you can comfortably carry, preferably in a backpack so you aren’t constantly worried about leaving your bag on the platform. It’s amazing how much packing lightly can change the travel experience, leaving you lighter in spirit as well as in luggage.
7. Avoid underground transit.
When planning our journeys abroad, we often rely on the quickest routes that we find via GPS. Although really convenient, underground transport systems—subways, metros—can be really uncomfortable for HSPs. Being separated from the fresh air above ground and the comforting sight of the sky can fuel that unease. Add to this the bad smells, loud noises, and overcrowding, and it’s obviously a place that can breed difficulties for sensitive people.
Consider alternative methods of transport—like buses, bikes, or taxis. There’s always the magic of getting around on foot when you’re in a foreign city. Not only will this be a brilliant opportunity to see the architecture and landscape that you’d miss underground, but you can avoid the unpleasant triggers of the metro and the exercise can help relieve built up stress hormones like cortisol.
8. Respect your limits.
It’s easy to try and do too much when we travel. As soon as we arrive, we want to fill every waking moment with activity to make sure we don’t waste any of our precious holiday time. Try to respect your emotional and physical limits, allowing plenty of time to rest. This can be particularly difficult if you are traveling with friends and family who put pressure on you to “get up and about” at the crack of dawn to visit museums and every monument in the city.
Remember to take care of yourself and don’t be afraid to tell your loved ones that you need time to reset, and that you’d like to sit some of the activities out. Your family might not realize how all the activities impact you if they aren’t an HSP, so loving communication can go a long way to bridge your differing needs and find a healthy compromise.
Highly sensitive people have so many strengths and qualities that make traveling all the more worthwhile. From their appreciation for art and nature, to their inquisitive minds and fine perception of details like texture, color, and sound. The world is a beautiful place, with so much to offer! Do yourself a favor by following these tips while you’re traveling and you’re sure to have the adventure of a lifetime.