A friend of mine recently hosted a birthday party at a crowded bar. There was a DJ, bright lights, tons of people, a taco stand, and a busy bartender who was making colorful drinks. For many people, a scene like this one would be a place of happiness and joy and connection. For others, however, it causes anxiety and stress.
I fall into the latter group of people. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), social situations often cause me a lot of stress. Especially if they involve a large group of people in a loud setting.
A lot of my time in college was overwhelming for me socially. I was unprepared to handle the social sophistication that many other college students around me seemed to excel at. I tended to read and write in the library and tried to avoid the party scene, which is not easy on a college campus. Weekends were particularly challenging.
Twelve years later, I still spend a lot of time writing and reading and avoiding bars and loud parties. However, living in today’s busy world means that inevitably we will be asked to move outside our comfort zones and place ourselves in environments that are challenging for us as HSPs. To navigate these overstimulating environments, here eight things I have learned that help ease the stress:
1. Arrive early. This way you can spend a little time with the host or hostess before they get busy and distracted later on (and before many guests arrive and the party gets busy, too). Arriving early also ensures that you can leave on the early side.
2. Arrive prepared. Ask questions before arriving so you know what to expect. It’s brave to admit that you’re a little nervous. I like to know how many people will be there, what food will be served (HSPs get hangry easily!) and how loud it will be. Since HSPs dislike loud noises, it’s a good idea to bring some discrete ear protection, especially if you’re going to be at an event where music will be played.
3. Build in time for a break. If it gets to be too much, take a break and sit outside to take some deep breaths. I sometimes escape to a bathroom just to take a breath if I need to. Take a walk around the block and focus on calming your breath.
4. Let others know if you’re having a hard time. This is a hard one. For a long time, I kept my struggles quiet and would pretend that I was having a great time, even if deep down I was struggling. Yet, opening up allows for a more authentic experience. I’ve started telling people that parties can be hard for me, and I have always appreciated their response. Surprisingly, it’s most often been “me too.”
5. Start a deeper conversation. Like this Introvert, Dear writer states, “What I actually dislike are the surface-level interactions of most social gatherings.” Instead of engaging in meaningless small talk, take the initiative to start a more meaningful conversation. Ask someone about their goals and dreams, not what they do for a living. Research shows that having deeper conversations is beneficial for our wellbeing.
6. Find ways to help. Sometimes this is a good way to give back a little, and to take some pressure off yourself. Does the host need help with serving appetizers? Ask the host if there’s anything you can do to help. Taking people’s coats is a nice way to be extra helpful. Helping with these tasks gives you a break from small talk, and can take you away from the busiest, most overstimulating parts of the party.
7. Stay present and off devices. With technology, it’s so easy to drift off into social media and the land of “what are all my friends doing without me,” especially if you’re feeling disconnected from others. However, that will only make you feel worse. Spending too much time on social media can whittle away at our self-confidence as we scroll through curated pictures of others relaxing on beautiful vacations, driving fancy cars, and eating gourmet meals with their perfect-looking families. It can be so easy to think that you’ll never have that kind of vacation or car or house as you look at other’s posts. Additionally, social media can enhance the feeling of overstimulation as you focus on other people, and not on your own experience. If you’re at a party, really be there.
8. Know your limits. I basically shut down if it gets too close to bedtime. I know that I need a good hour (and a cup of herbal tea) to decompress at home in pajamas afterward. So I leave gatherings with plenty of time to take care of myself. Make your wellbeing a priority — don’t feel guilty if you need to leave before others do.
It took a long while for me to find my place socially, and honestly, it’s still a process. I will always prefer a few close friends and will rarely want to attend a large party. I need downtime to collect myself after a busy day or a large gathering. For a while, I felt like I had to work harder at being less sensitive, but ultimately, I’ve learned how to embrace it (mostly!). I have found solace in learning that many, many people are highly sensitive — somewhere between 15 to 20 percent of the population.
The next time you’re faced with a challenging situation, go into it with some techniques that will help you thrive. And remember that we’re all living these messy, yet beautiful, lives.
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