The holiday season is already in full swing, and for those who identify as empaths or highly sensitive people, it can all feel like “too much.”
What is a Highly Sensitive Person?
Elaine Aron coined the term “highly sensitive person” (HSP) in 1991. According to her research, about 15-20% of the population meet the criteria for HSP, which includes:
- Heightened sensitivity to external stimuli such as lights and sounds
- Having a stronger nervous system response (“fight or flight”) in stressful situations
- Experiencing emotions intensely
- Noticing and having difficulty with transition and change, even when subtle
- Affected deeply by the energy and moods of others
- Having a low threshold for pain
As an HSP myself, and therapist in Philadelphia who works with highly sensitive people, I encourage celebrating the deep empathy, creativity and self awareness that comes with being as HSP.
Making sure that we are tending to our internal and external space is of the utmost importance to the HSP. Taking steps such as building and maintaining a morning and evening routine, making sure we’re taking downtime, and spending time in natural spaces can all help us feel more centered, calm and connected.
HSP’s and the Holidays
I also know that being an HSP can lead to anxiety and overwhelm pretty quickly if we’re not tending to our need to recharge and take time to ourselves. The holiday season can be particularly challenging in this regard. Between managing expectations of family gatherings, work and social parties, travel, gift giving and more, it can be harder to make intentional space for taking care of ourselves.
Tips for navigating the holidays as an HSP
Get clear on your values and priorities
What’s most important to you? Is it spending time with family or friends, making sure that your physical space feels warm and cozy, or maybe honoring particular traditions that help you connect with your ancestors and lineage?
When there’s a flurry of activities to choose from and you recognize that you can’t do it all without getting overstimulated and overwhelmed, let your values and priorities guide your decision-making process.
There’s often a lot of pressure to meet others’ expectations around the holidays, and I see this coming up most often within families. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that we can adapt to shifts and changes in traditions and still be OK.
Know that it is more than OK and actually essential to your well-being to say “no” when something isn’t aligning with your values and priorities and/or you are feeling burnt out or overwhelmed.
It can also be helpful to practice visualizing an energetic shield around you that allows the emotions of others to bounce off, rather than be absorbed by you. I like to imagine a golden circle surrounding me, but find what works best for you.
Take time out
Tending to your inner world is an important part of maintaining equilibrium and avoiding overstimulation. Because HSP’s tend to absorb the stimuli of their environment in a heightened manner, including the emotions of others, it can be helpful to take intentional time to yourself.
What feels most nourishing and nurturing to you? Taking a shower or bath and imagining cleansing yourself of emotions and burdens that aren’t yours to carry? Journaling? Meditation? A nap with cozy blankets? Find what feels good and go with that.
Lean into routine
Cope ahead by maintaining and/or building nurturing and nourishing activities, routines and practices into your daily schedule. The morning is a great time to set the tone for your day, even if this is just a few moments of consciously connecting with your breath or bringing mindful gratitude to your daily tea or coffee routine.
Taking breaks throughout the day to reconnect with feelings of centeredness and calm can help you reset and act as a buffer against the stress of colleagues, friends and family.
Honor the season of rest
In the northern hemisphere, we’re moving into the darkest time of the year, what I like to think of as “hibernation season.” The flurry of activity and expectation to be social during the holidays is in direct conflict with the pull to slow down.
Connecting with the natural world can be a great reminder that this is actually a season of stillness, which can help us create a better balance between the call to do more and the call to rest.