How I Survive (And Even Enjoy) The Holidays as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

If you aren’t familiar with the term “Highly Sensitive Person”, it refers to about 20% of the population that possess a unique sensory processing trait that allows them to pick up more on subtleties in the environment, resulting in deeper processing and often being easily overwhelmed with stimuli. (To learn more, you can visit this website: 
The infamous Santa Bed figurine.  Photo Courtesy of Arianna Smith Counseling LLC.

Does anyone else feel like the world suddenly gets put into fast forward when the holidays start to come around? Come mid-November, I feel I am given a tremendous to-do list of holiday duties that are not even important to me.    

1. Take advantage of Black Friday deals. 2. Find an ugly Christmas Sweater.  3. Watch ‘Love, Actually’ for the 30th time.  4. Learn how to make pumpkin rolls. 5. Realize that it’s now December and it’s too late to make pumpkin rolls. 6. Instead decide to learn how to make peppermint bark.  7. Get sucked into a Netflix abyss and spend the evening eating candy canes on the couch.   

And it goes on.

While I have developed many ways to cope with overwhelm in most circumstances, the holidays can be a time that I run myself ragged.  I find myself inundated with unrealistic expectations of myself and my time.  

Not anymore, my friends.  Here is how I have started to survive and enjoy (yes, actually enjoy) the holidays as an HSP.  And you can, too.     

Focus on what the holidays truly mean to you 

Figure out what this is – and remind yourself daily.    I have photos of my baby nieces on my fridge.  Their photos (besides providing a jolt of serotonin any time I see them) provide the constant reminder that the holidays are about spending time with loved ones, not spending my time shopping. Whenever I get sucked into the desire to find the “perfect gift” for someone – I step back and ask – What do I really want to give to this person?  

The holidays are not about mindless consumerism.  The holidays are about giving my time and love to the people who mean the most to me.   

I have a porcelain “Santa Bed” (pictured above) that is identical to the ones my sister and mother have in their respective homes.  The original Santa Bed was a gift from my grandmother to my mother when she was in her 20’s.  Ask anyone in my family and they will tell you: Christmas does not officially begin until the Santa Bed is filled with red and green Mint M&M’s!   The figurine in my home reminds me to savor and honor the traditions that have been passed down for generations.  I utilized my gift as an HSP to be able to deeply savor these pleasant memories and use them as a way to ground myself during hectic times.

Schedule some recovery time after travel

Holidays often means travel and family.  As an HSP, I need a lot of time to process my experiences, especially those that involve the complex emotions of seeing family.  On top of this, travel brings constant noise, unfamiliar smells, and the non-stop sensory onslaught of new people and surroundings.  

My solution?  I schedule in a recovery day after I travel.  When I arrive to my destination, I ensure (if possible) that I have no plans for the next day.  When I return home, I take the following day off from work. This means I may fly back home on Sunday and take Monday off from work.  This allows me to rest and integrate all the learning from my trip.  As an HSP, I need time to rest and deeply process my experiences in a safe space.  Even though I cringe to use up my vacation hours for a ‘recovery day’, it has proven to be the single most important thing to ensure that I can both enjoy the holiday and return to work rested and renewed.    

Please note: how much time you take off to recover is specific to you.  You may need several days, or several hours, depending on your unique needs and the toll of your travels.  When I travel, I am often taking red-eye flights back from Alaska to Colorado.  I need a full day to help me recover.  Ensure you schedule some rest for after you get back from travel – even just an evening at home to yourself – before you resume normal activities.  (And don’t forget to schedule downtime through the season, even when you aren’t traveling. )

Do Less

This statement can feel very broad.  Do less of what?  That’s up to you.  What do you find to be the most stressful or overwhelming about the holidays?  Is it the endless invites to social engagements and fundraisers?  Is it the anxiety of finding the perfect gift while navigating jam-packed retail stores?  Is it the incessant advertising?

In the past, my neighbor and I have hosted a holiday party for our neighborhood.   I let her know that this year I would not be able to assist. (It was hard to do.) After I worked through a small amount of guilt, I felt tremendous relief to do less than I had the year prior.  I asked myself – what would I get from this party?  It would be a way to see some of my friends and acquaintances I don’t see as often, but still value in my life.  Instead of exhausting myself by hosting a gathering, I will be sending these loved ones heartfelt cards, making calls, or scheduling a coffee date in late January.

Think about how you live your life in mid-March or early October.  Do you go to three parties a week?  Transform into Martha Stewart and make your own christmas decorations from recycled yogurt cups?  No?  Well, why would it be different now?  

Pick the most important holiday activities to you and say “no, thanks” to the rest.  (If you need help with this, check out my upcoming post about the art of saying no.)  Send a thoughtful email to the friend who may be the only reason you are attending an exhausting social event.  Give yourself permission to shop online instead of braving stores.   Or give yourself permission to not shop at all.  

You don’t have to enjoy the holidays

Everywhere we turn we are bombarded with images of picture-perfect families, marriage proposals and laughter.  You may think: “Everyone around me is so happy, why aren’t I? Is there something wrong with me?”  There is NOTHING wrong with you.  The holidays are not a time of cheer and joy for everyone. And that’s ok.  Holidays may remind us of loved ones that have passed on, family members who are absent, stressful financial situations, or unsatisfying relationships (or all of the above).  You may feel obligated to spend time with people that are difficult to be around.  All the focus around food and alcohol may be challenging if you are struggling with addiction or disordered eating.   Unfortunately, if you are in the United States and celebrate any non-Christian holidays, you may encounter prejudice, isolation, or discrimination.

If you are an HSP, these experiences may be even more heightened or distressing.  Give yourself a break.  It is ok to be sad, angry, jealous, bored, numb, lonely, or bitter at times.  (However, please seek out the support of a mental health professional if these feelings persist or cause you significant distress.)

Last, but not least: the holidays are a season, not forever.  When feeling overwhelmed, remind yourself that most of the holiday craziness will die down around mid-January.

What do the holidays mean to you?  How will your activities this holiday season be more in align with your values?  How do you get through the holidays as an HSP?

You can reach me at 720-772-7413 to schedule a free consultation and learn how craft your ideal life as a Highly Sensitive Person.

Arianna Smith, MA, LPC, EMDR

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