For sensitive people and introverts, “vacation overwhelm” is real.
In the fall of 2021, my family and I moved back to the U.S. after spending two (COVID-19 pandemic) years overseas. It had been a chaotic time, to say the least, and moving near my parents gave my husband and I the opportunity to go on a much-needed weekend away.
I knew exactly what kind of getaway I wanted after the hustle and bustle of packing up our life into boxes and shuttling three kids under 10 through international airports and customs. As an introvert and highly sensitive person (HSP), I was determined to have the quietest vacation possible. I had idyllic visions of coming back refreshed and ready to jump back into life with a full energy tank.
What I didn’t realize was, after so much wonderful quiet, the “jumping back in” part would feel like a polar plunge of sensory input that led to my first-ever panic attack.
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A Quiet Cabin in the Woods
I started planning our quiet vacation with location, location, location. I examined photos and scoured comments on Airbnb listings to be sure I wouldn’t be able to see or hear any other homes or roads. There would be no small talk and no waving to neighbors as I sat on the porch with a cup of tea — just what I needed to calm the sensory overload of the last few months. I found a lovely little out-of-the-way cabin that even had a digital keypad so there was no interaction with the host. I booked it right away.
My husband and I had a gloriously solitary weekend together. We chatted and hung out, of course, but we spent just as much time sitting in the quiet. I wrote in my journal and listened to the birds. One night, we took blankets outside and stargazed in the field down the hill.
The time went by quickly, as it always does, but when we were packing up, I felt at peace. While it was difficult to leave such a wonderful place, I was ready to take this newfound level of contentment with me as we returned to daily life.
In such a mood, when my extroverted husband asked if I wanted to have lunch at a restaurant on our way back, I happily agreed. Eating out usually isn’t my idea of a good time. But the sun was shining on the country road we were driving down and a little more time to soak in the vacation vibes sounded lovely.
It wasn’t until after the hostess sat us down at our table that everything shifted.
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Panic! At the Restaurant
The restaurant wasn’t packed, but there’d been a steady flow of servers and customers when we’d walked in to request a table. My husband and I were sitting across from each other, menus propped in front of us, when I first started to feel it: an intense awareness of every other person in the room. The din of the restaurant seemed to grow louder, even though nothing had changed.
Deciding on what to eat was impossible as my brain went fuzzy. I could barely get words out to explain to my husband what was happening. It felt like there were no words for it. Trying to help, my husband sat next to me, shielding me from as much of the restaurant as he could. But anxiety and emotional overload were already clawing at me.
I tried to pretend everything was fine for several long minutes, but the desire to crawl out of my skin became too much. I told my husband I had to leave. Now. I couldn’t stay in that booth one second longer. He stayed to ask for to-go boxes while I tried not to make eye contact with anyone as I rushed out of the restaurant, tears threatening to fall.
When I finally crossed the endless parking lot and got into the safety of our car, I cried until I couldn’t breathe. I had no idea what was happening — except that it was intensely overwhelming and at the same time frustrating. Why was this happening? What was happening?
It wasn’t until I spoke with my therapist about it later that she labeled it as a panic attack. I’d never had one before, but the symptoms fit: shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, and a sense of impending danger. She’s constantly telling me to be curious about myself, so I wondered: Why now? Why, after having one of the loveliest weekends of my life, did I dissolve into a panic attack that took my nervous system days to recover from?
What I eventually discovered was that the answer was in my tendency as a highly sensitive person.
Post-Panic Attack Aftercare as a Highly Sensitive Person
While the sensory reprieve of my quiet vacation had been beautiful and relaxing, I hadn’t given myself enough time to adjust when returning to daily rhythms. A regular trip to a restaurant, although not my favorite activity, wasn’t all that different from the noise of life with three kids as a sensitive, introverted parent. But compared to a lone cabin in the woods? It was like jumping into the deep end, then realizing you’ve forgotten how to swim.
In the last couple of years, I’ve done more quiet vacations — some by myself, some with my husband, to both work and relax. They feed my soul in a way that aligns with my introverted and sensitive nature. But now I’m more gentle with myself as I do my “reentry.” Not only can vacation overwhelm be real, but so, too, can adjusting to regular life again. So I schedule extra time to regulate my nervous system and have some of my favorite resources readily available.
Here are a few coping mechanisms I do:
- Play music at increasingly higher volumes before heading home. Yes, this may sound a bit out-there, but it helps me transition from the silence of being alone in a way I can control. Since HSPs have noise sensitivity, I’ll also use headphones to block out other sounds for a while once I’m around other people again.
- Use my last vacation day to have no plans but regulating. It’s common advice to have a buffer of time between returning from vacation and going back to work. It’s usually for getting things under control, like email or laundry. For me, the most important thing I need to get back in order is my nervous system, so I block out the time just like I would for those other tasks.
- Go for a walk outside in a busy area. The playground is great for this, as I have young kids. I let myself have enough distance to not be in the thick of things while still keeping a watchful eye. It’s a less confining way to get back into the groove of being around groups of people.
While being an introverted highly sensitive person may sound challenging sometimes, I don’t think of it that way. I love so many of the strengths I get from these tendencies, like my empathy and ability to think deeply within myself. I see this process of quiet vacations and the regulation I need afterward as necessary maintenance for those parts of me, to better protect my energy.
It’s worth it — and so are you. Do vacations the way you want to, and take the time you need to decompress once you’re home. Trust me — your sensitive soul will thank you.
You might like:
- How Living in the Middle of Nowhere Is an Introvert Dream Come True (But Also Really Hard)
- For Introverts, Vacation Overwhelm Is Real (Do This Instead)
- 7 ‘Rules’ for Introverts and Highly Sensitive People to Protect Their Energy
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