How to Survive the Holidays When You’re a Highly Sensitive Introvert

A highly sensitive introvert at a holiday party

Prioritize whatever makes the most sense to you, and make sure to plan some downtime.

Mariah Carey has officially defrosted and I’m panicking. Are you?

As an introvert that’s a work-in-progress, I make a point to read every day to further my self-improvement. I recently discovered the book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, by Dr. Elaine Aron, and I have to say, it has me looking at myself in a whole new prismatic way I never noticed before.

In layman’s terms, highly sensitive people (HSPs) are mostly introverts — but can also be extroverts — who share the mutual attribute of having high sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS). No, it’s not a disorder, so it can’t be diagnosed. Rather, high sensitivity is a personality trait. And it’s perfectly normal as nearly 30 percent of people are highly sensitive. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are, too.

With the holidays fast approaching, highly sensitive introverts are about to have a challenging time if they aren’t prepared. So if you find yourself feeling stressed already over the sensory overwhelm that’s about to befall you, here’s my battle plan for the holidays. I’ll cover three areas, starting with shopping.

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How to Navigate Holiday Shopping as a Highly Sensitive Introvert

If you’ve ever felt panged by holiday anxiety as a highly sensitive introvert, even before the holidays begin, you’re not alone. And it doesn’t help that stores have been placing holiday decor out earlier each year, with some specialty retailers, such as Michaels, setting up flashy autumnal displays as early as July. 

Happy Hallothanksmas, everybody!

Not to mention Black Friday — and my personal favorite, Cyber Monday — were onced revered as the OG days to buy holiday gifts. You had plenty of time to acquire a list for yourself and others, and shop when and how you wanted to, without it weighing on your mind for the span of two or three months. 

But now, with retailers pushing highly discounted deals all month long, my fear of missing out (FOMO) is constantly triggered, and it takes away from experiencing and enjoying one holiday at a time. 

If this sounds like you, too, here are some sanity-saving shopping steps you can take.

  • Set up a way to shop. As many highly sensitive people and introverts will echo, I enjoy online shopping compared to dealing with the crazy in-person crowds. Plus, the barragement of bells, lights, and Christmas music can be a sensory nightmare for HSPs, who can be sensitive to environmental stimuli. But when I shop in person, I pump myself up and prepare as best as I can for the madness, or I do a curbside pickup (just be prepared to wait).  
  • Set up an ideal (i.e., less crowded) time to shop. I found the best time to shop in person is in the early morning and on a weekday, because if you have to go inside, it’s usually not as busy. If shopping online, carve out some time in your schedule where you can sit back, relax, and kick out your list at your own leisure. I typically do my holiday shopping over the last weekend in November, after I’ve given myself time to decompress (and digest) Thanksgiving.
  • Set the mood for shopping, too. If you’re shopping in-store, wear earbuds or ear plugs to mute the chaos. I like, and use, these. If you’re doing a curbside pick up, and you know you’re going to wait a while, bring some snacks and entertainment to help pass the time. Shopping at home? Dim the lights, light a candle, get comfy, and embrace the hygge — all the coziness you can. 
  • Set a budget (and stick to it). Times are financially stressful for a lot of people right now, highly sensitive introverts included. If you can allocate some money to set aside for the holidays in advance, you’ve already won half the battle. Also, consider setting a gift limit with friends and family, so neither parties overspend. Or set up a gift game, like a White Elephant Gift Exchange, so you don’t have to stress about getting a gift for every single person in your life (although if our budget allows, we’d love to). Lastly, remember, some of the best gifts are free
  • Let people know your sensory preferences. Not all highly sensitive people are built the same, so what affects one HSP super intensely may be a mild annoyance to another. If you let people know what you like (or don’t like), it can lead to a better gift exchange. Wool sweaters? Forget it! I feel itchy just writing about it! But I adore a good pair of premium microfiber, fuzzy warm socks. I also love candles, but anything balsam, fir, or cypress-scented makes me feel sick and smangry (yep, sensitive to smells!).

Now that you have your holiday gifts, it’s time to do something else that’s probably not on your holiday wish-list: Travel. But here’s how to do it in an introvert-friendly way.

How to Navigate Holiday Travel as a Highly Sensitive Introvert

For any introvert who has ever traveled during the holidays, they’ll tell you how chaotic it can be (myself included). Just last year, the TSA reported that 2.56 million passengers flew on the Sunday following Thanksgiving alone, continuing to make it the busiest time to travel all year.   

And if you’re the type that prefers wheels over wings, unfortunately, the numbers aren’t in your favor there either. AAA forecasts that 49 million Americans will be on the road this year, with this cumulative data including the two days leading up to Thanksgiving, as well as the Sunday after.

So, what’s a highly sensitive introvert to do? Even if you take another form of transportation, like the train, there are still certain hacks to make your travel less stressful and more carefree.

For starters, prepare for delays and pack your patience, along with these other life-saving sensory necessities.

  • Bring a new book so you have something to look forward to. I’ve found that when I save something different or thought-provoking to read for a particularly draining day, it takes some of the stress off. Lately, I’ve been reaching for anything by Neil Gaiman. And as I read at the pace of a snail, I have a lot of reading material to choose from.
  • Bring your (noise-canceling) earbuds. Music and mobile gaming are other great entertainment options, but I recommend packing a power bank to get additional battery support or using an additional device altogether. It’s also a great way to tune out the chatter of the crowd, keep strangers from bugging you, and calm auditory overload. Ear plugs are also great if you just need silence.
  • Bring a blanket or pillow. I can’t recall the last time I received a complimentary pillow or blanket from an airline (not like those were the best anyway), so be sure to bring your own. What I like to do is freshly launder them before I leave, or spritz them with my favorite spray, so they smell like the comforts of home
  • Wear a loose and comfortable outfit. Make sure it has removable layers. This is especially critical for those of us who are highly sensitive, since we are also sensitive to temperature and restrictive clothing. Planes, and other forms of public transportation, can sometimes get too hot or too cold, so it’s nice to have options.
  • Pack a snack in your carry-on or travel bag. Perfect for HSPs who are budget-conscious and prone to getting hangry (hungry + angry). Or, if you’re like me and arrive at the airport two hours early (ya know, “just in case”), grab a bite to go at one of the airport restaurants and eat it by the gate. Usually, there’s no one there yet that early (although this may not be the case if you’re traveling during the holiday rush).

And, now, after getting to your destination, it’s time to go to a holiday party… or 10! Here’s how to survive!

Is the chaos of life overwhelming you as a highly sensitive person?

Sensitive people have certain brain differences that make them more susceptible to stress and anxiety. Thankfully, there is a way to train your brain so you can navigate the challenges of sensitivity, access your gifts, and thrive in life. Psychotherapist and sensitivity expert Julie Bjelland will show you how in her popular online course, HSP Brain Training. As an Introvert, Dear reader, you can take 50% off the registration fee using the code INTROVERTDEARClick here to learn more.

How to Navigate Holiday Gatherings as a Highly Sensitive Introvert

From work parties to get-togethers with friends and family, holiday gatherings come in all different shapes and sizes. But if sensitive people’s schedules are too busy, many may soon feel like they’re living a real-life 24-hour hellish loop of A Christmas Story… with no end in sight.

One year, I was in a rush making pumpkin pie, and I shattered a plastic spoon in my blender. After tossing it, I almost scrapped pie altogether that year, as that was the only can of pumpkin I had left. Of course, the thought of dashing to the store the day before Thanksgiving to get more pumpkin left me feeling paralyzed and was not an option.

Learning from my past mistakes, here’s how to make the most of the holidays and actually enjoy them.

  • Don’t try to squeeze everyone in all at once. Prioritize in whatever way makes the most sense to you, but make sure to create some “me time” for yourself, too. (After all, engaging in one holiday social situation after another is a great way to burn out.)
  • Understand the plans — have them set up in advance. Preparedness is a highly sensitive introvert’s best friend. When I know the plans in advance, I’m far less anxious in the days leading up to an event and way less likely to be overstimulated once I’m there. Plus, I can find meaningful ways to contribute if it’s requested, so long as it’s not at the last minute. 
  • Be the host with the most. If you have a little extra space and are comfortable with having people in it, consider hosting. That way, you can see as many people as you’d like, in the familiarity of your surroundings and on your own terms. Imagine the downtime you would have. It sure beats trying to squeeze three social functions into one day (never again).
  • Don’t “work the room.” In a bigger setting, or in a more formal one, it’s very easy for HSPs to get overwhelmed. Instead of stepping into a group of people, work your way in from the outside, and start with small talk with one or two people at a time. In bigger groups, it might be hard to add to the conversation anyway, which makes those one-on-ones that more meaningful.
  • Take breaks (as many as you need!). If — and when — you’re starting to feel social fatigue, step outside for a moment or find a room that’s a little less occupied. My favorite is the restroom, as many people don’t usually question what you’re doing in there — just don’t take too long for people who may need to actually use it. Use the time to take a few deep breaths, get grounded, and recenter. Smile at yourself in the mirror, too; while it may sound creepy, it scientifically works. 
  • Check out early and go home. If people at the work Christmas party start organizing a Cha-Cha Slide after too much party punch, it might be time to cha-cha out of there. HSPs are sponges to their environment and the energy that people produce around them — and awkward situations are especially taxing. Additionally, if a loved one’s holiday cheer is starting to turn into holiday jeer, it’s not worth sacrificing your peace to take part in a family feud.

Know What Triggers You and Act Accordingly 

As I learn more about the world of being a highly sensitive person, and all that it encompasses, I’m actually delighted to be a part of it. Despite its limitations, like getting drained more easily, it really is a superpower to experience the world how we do. Things I thought that were only bothersome to me actually apply to millions of people. It’s another “aha” moment as I learn more about another facet of my personality that inspires my uniqueness, and the uniqueness of others around me who are also HSPs (but haven’t noticed it within themselves yet). 

Since the holidays have always been a stressful time for many people, it’s no surprise that it’d be extra harrowing for those of us who are not only introverts, but also highly sensitive people. It’s my hope that the knowledge I’ve gained of what triggers me — and why — and the tips I’ve shared, can help other highly sensitive introverts survive the holiday season, too.

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