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 which allows them to pick up more on subtleties in the environment, resulting in deeper processing and often being easily overwhelmed with stimuli. Most people exist on a spectrum of sensitivity. (To learn more, you can visit this website: www.hsperson.com.)
Travel is an essential part of modern life. We travel to see far-off family and friends, renew ourselves, get away from the day-to-day grind, serve others, and see the world.
For a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP), travel can be inherently overwhelming. New smells and sensations can be both exciting and alarming. Unfamiliar routines require extra processing or planning. Different cultural expectations create more emotional stress or material to process. Jet lag and time zones can mess up an HSPs sensitive internal clock. It’s enough to make an HSP want to resign themselves to never leaving their zip code.
However, fear of overstimulation is not a reason for HSPs to avoid or limit travel. In fact, I would argue travel is essential for HSPs in order to deepen and enrich their lives – but it has to be done in a way that is both nourishing and mindful of HSP qualities.
I recently took a trip to the East Coast. My traveling partner was – yep, you guessed it – not a Highly Sensitive Person. Spending a week traveling with someone who is not highly sensitive provided a stark contrast to the areas where my sensitivity needs extra care and advocacy. I learned a lot about how resilient and adaptable I can be in overwhelming situations, and also about areas where I could have planed for better self-care.
There is much that goes into enjoying travel as an HSP, and when you add in other people (regardless of where they lie on the HSP spectrum), this creates a complicating factor that needs to be honored and explored. So, whether you are planning a trip with another HSP or with a non-HSP, these tips may enhance your travel experience by creating dialogue for some potential differences that come when people of varying sensitivities travel together.
Before you can expect your traveling partner to understand you, you have to fully grasp what you need in order to function well. What are your non-negotiable needs when it comes to wellness? Where can you be flexible? For example, can you skimp on sleep or do you need 8 hours a night regardless of how much fun you’re having? What type of discomfort can you tolerate? Can you endure a noisy marketplace if it means you will be sampling some local cuisine? For example, I know I can be fairly adaptable to new situations or overwhelm as long as I eat regularly. Send me on a day trip without enough snacks and I will eventually devolve into having the emotional stamina of a toddler.
Communicate Your Needs Clearly And Without Judgment
Once you have done the psychological excavating to understand your needs, your limits, and your bottom lines, it is crucial you communicate this to your traveling companion. Ideally, you will talk to your travel buddy prior to your trip. It may take more work up front, and might be a little uncomfortable, but it will result in a much better trip if you have this conversation with your traveling partner prior to being in the midst of a raging dance club and your nerves are too fried to communicate effectively.
It’s important to honor both your needs and your traveling partner’s needs and to come up with compromises where possible. It’s unrealistic to expect your traveling companion to accommodate every single need and you will need to be flexible. It’s also important to not judge how you or your partner want to enjoy your time. If you want to peruse a bookstore while your traveling companion engages in local psychedelics, that’s perfectly alright. If you need more down time than your traveling partner, that’s understandable and acceptable, too.
Take 100% Responsibility For Your Travel Experience
Earlier I mentioned one of my ‘bottom lines’ of self-care when traveling is eating regularly. Taking responsibility for my travel experience means I make sure I have food. I advocate to stop at a store to get snacks, I pack a bunch of non-perishables in my suitcase, and I suggest we plan the day around when we need to eat meals. I’m also flexible and bring snacks in case our expeditions go longer than intended. It’s unfair to expect my traveling partner to be responsible for my experience or to know when I’m getting hungry.
If you find yourself getting overwhelmed or uncomfortable, ask yourself ‘What if I took 100% responsibility for my experience right now?” On my recent trip, there was a time where I was with a group of new people and feeling anxious because I didn’t feel as part of the conversation and wasn’t sure what to say. I felt overwhelmed because of the noise of the restaurant and my growing hunger, which contributed to me feeling less present in the conversation. It was a vicious cycle of overwhelm, shame, anxiety, repeat. When I asked myself to take 100% responsibility for the situation, my mindset shifted and I realized I can take breaks from the noise by going to the bathroom and I can make myself more part of the conversation by asking questions of the people around me. When I took 100% responsibility for my situation, I felt more in control and enjoyed my experience, despite the sensory overwhelm.
It’s Ok For You And Your Traveling Partner To Do Different Things – Especially Down Time
During my recent trip, my traveling partner wanted to be much more social than me. She wanted to catch up with old friends and stay out late. Often I would stay and visit with friends for several hours and then return to our lodging to have a couple hours to myself. Initially, I felt guilty about this. I felt like it was important for my traveling companion and I to experience everything together. But what it came down to is my experience was richer when I didn’t force myself to enjoy the trip the same way she did. The time apart, especially the down time, allowed me to nourish myself and enjoy the trip more than if I had expected myself to just ‘buck it up’ or ‘tough it out’.
Plan Your ‘Out’ For Overwhelming Situations
Along the lines of communication, taking responsibility for your travel experience, and allowing yourself to travel in a way that feels good for you – it’s sometimes important to advocate for a way out of an overwhelming situation. This may mean you and your traveling partner agree you may leave earlier, and they will take public transportation back to the lodging or get a ride with a friend. Sometimes simply knowing you could leave the situation at any time is enough to help you tolerate overwhelm.
Planning an ‘out’ doesn’t necessarily mean leaving a situation altogether. For example, one of my outs is going out to the car to take a break. I would read out in the car, settle my nervous system, and then return to the social situation. It was a way I would pace myself, manage sensory overwhelm, and also participate in festivities. No one noticed I was gone and if they did, it was a passing observation.
Know That Temporary Overwhelm Is Part of Travel
In most cases, the benefits of travel outweigh the discomfort of being temporarily overwhelmed. Travel allows me to stretch my limits, be challenged, hone my coping skills and meaningfully connect with other people outside my daily life. Traveling allows me to experience different aspects of nature I wouldn’t encounter in Colorado (hello, Atlantic Ocean!) Yes, I may be overwhelmed by certain aspects of travel, but what about the magical and humble feeling of walking next to a roaring, stormy ocean? What about the wonder I feel when I walk along centuries-old cobblestone streets? What about the experience of meeting some of the most important people in my partner’s life, even if it’s in a noisy bar and it’s waaaaay past my bedtime?
As an HSP, it’s impossible to completely avoid sensory overwhelm. It’s going to happen– on the plane, the train, the jungle, the festival, the farmer’s market, your friend’s kitchen–you will become overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Welcome it, plan for it, roll with it. Take comfort in all sensations. It is a reminder you are out experiencing life and connecting with the world around you.
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Arianna Smith, MA, LPC, EMDR