Originally shared on The Highly Sensitive Refuge on November 12, 2021

If the holidays are overwhelming for the average person, that means they’re even more so for HSPs. But, luckily, there are ways to reduce the overwhelm.

It’s that time of year again — the holidays are around the corner, and with them comes all the hustle and bustle. Holiday parties, shopping marathons, travel to see your relatives — it can all be too much for the average person. But for the highly sensitive person (HSP), it’s more than too much — they might find themselves struggling to cope with the extensive list of preparations, obligations, and traditions that come with the season. The constant stimulation of shopping, decorations, concerts, time off, and extra time with the people you love can take its toll on HSPs. 

As a highly sensitive mom, I want to create the perfect holiday experience every year. Most holiday movies or TV shows portray the season to be perfect, with lots of smiling faces and laughter. But these portrayals don’t reflect reality and can leave people disappointed. However, when you feel calm and tame your overwhelm, you’ll be able to create a holiday that is perfect for you and your family. Yes, HSPs can survive the holiday, and here are four ways to do so.

4 Ways to Navigate the Holidays as an HSP

1. Put your needs first, as hard as that may be.

The holidays are a time to connect with family and friends. But they’re also a time when everyone is busy planning parties, traveling, decorating, baking, mailing cards, etc. As an HSP, you may feel guilty saying “no” to any of these activities, but you must consider your own needs first so that you don’t get overwhelmed.

How to put yourself first:

  • Ask for help. This is something that I still have trouble with! When our families are involved in gifting, parties, or even just holiday dinners, it’s easy to feel pressure to step up and help. Determine your capacity for helping before accepting the offer.
  • Give yourself permission to say “no.” You don’t have to attend every family event or social gathering. If you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed, don’t feel guilty about skipping it. Find something else you would enjoy doing, like reading a book by the fireplace in solitude.
  • Reserve time for yourself. Don’t cancel your plans with yourself to spend more time with others. To stay grounded when life is spinning out of control, practice self-care and find your balance in the things you love.
  • Have a “trigger list.” Triggers are external events or circumstances that may produce very uncomfortable emotions. Be aware of your triggers and develop coping strategies. Here are some examples from my holiday trigger list: too much to do, feeling tired, hungry, thirsty, long lines, whiny kids, small talk, and feeling pressured to attend events. From your list, develop an action plan of ways you can comfort yourself when your triggers come up. Here are some ways I comfort myself: take a bath, rest, journal, call a friend, or take a walk.
  • Create space for yourself. Even if creating space means getting up just 15 minutes earlier than everyone else so you have some quiet time before everyone wakes up, do it if that is what’s best for your sensitive self. You may even want to consider spending a few hours alone during the day — time that isn’t filled with holiday parties or events, that is. If this seems impossible, try planning ahead by doing something relaxing, like getting a massage or watching an uplifting movie.

2. Stick to your routine, which helps HSPs thrive.

Since you have a heightened awareness of your surroundings as an HSP, it’s easy to let unfamiliar activity overwhelm you. By staying true to your usual schedule, you will stay grounded and better able to handle the increased activity. Just remember that it’s okay to take time for yourself between activities. For example, going from one party to another with little rest in between is not a good idea as an HSP — and can also lead to the dreaded “HSP hangover.”

It might feel like there’s no time left for self-care or that everything must change during this special time of year. Yet your routines will help you stay grounded among the chaos of the holidays.

Some ideas to keep your routine intact:

  • Stick to your usual morning routine. No matter what, stick to your usual morning routine — whether this means getting out of bed early, meditating, or exercising. This way, you won’t feel so overwhelmed by all the things you have to do as the day goes on.
  • Overall, have you and your family stick to their usual routines. Put your kids back on their normal bedtimes, meal schedules, and daily activities if they’re not already in a routine. This will help them feel more grounded amid all the holiday hoopla. You might be tempted to give them extra leeway this time of year, but don’t! Give them structure and stability, even if they don’t seem like they want it or need it. It’s good for them, trust me.
  • Maintain your bedtime routine. Going to bed at a particular hour has many benefits, including better sleep quality and better health. And we highly sensitive people need our sleep (all that overstimulation catches up with us!) Be sure to get enough sleep this holiday season.

3. Have realistic expectations about the holidays.

We tend to put so much pressure on ourselves to create the “perfect” holiday — especially since we highly sensitive types often feel responsible for other people’s feelings. We want our kids to be well-behaved and we expect the meal(s) to be delicious. We want everyone to get along and to be surrounded by all our loved ones. Yet we don’t always get everything we want, and this can lead to feelings of disappointment, sadness, or even anger.

I love the holidays because I get to spend time with my family and enjoy traditions that are meaningful to me… even though, as a highly sensitive person, they can also be overwhelming.

Here are some ideas for staying connected with others:

  • Volunteer together. Volunteering for a cause that is close to your heart can help keep the spirit of giving alive. There are many opportunities available around the holidays to volunteer your time and energy, from helping underprivileged children to feeding the homeless.
  • Take walks in nature and/or go on a hike with family and friends. When you get back from your walk or hike, you will feel refreshed and ready to focus on what matters most: Family!
  • Call your parents/grandparents/siblings/friends. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own lives that we don’t realize how much someone else might miss us. Give someone you love a call today!

The holidays are supposed to be a happy time, but sometimes we get so caught up in our own heads — or the overwhelming stimuli around us — that we forget why we are celebrating in the first place!

4. Get organized so you can actually enjoy the holiday season.

Find ways to plan ahead so you can reduce stress and avoid overwhelm this holiday season! This means making lists and setting priorities — whether it’s getting your shopping done early or making sure your kids have everything they need for school.

Here are some tips to start getting organized:

  • Plan. Whether you use electronic tools (like Google Calendar or Outlook) or a simple planner with pen and paper, make sure your schedule is clear and plan for time with family and friends, as well as work-related events. And alone time! Don’t forget that!
  • Make a list. Make a detailed shopping list and stick to it. Having too much on your mind will only add to your stress level during this busy season. If you set out to buy specific items and stick to your list, you’ll reduce your stress level while accomplishing what you need to get done.
  • Let go of your HSP perfectionismYou don’t need to make every holiday meal from scratch; this season is about enjoying each other’s company, not creating masterpieces in the kitchen! Relax and don’t be afraid to use shortcuts that allow you to enjoy more time with loved ones.
  • Focus on what matters most. You don’t have to do everything — especially during the busy holiday season! Make a list of your priorities and start working down the list, one by one. If something doesn’t fit into your schedule, let it go!

I have created a free Facebook group of like-feeling moms called Empath Mama, and I would love to have you join others like you for loving support and guidance.