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The In's and Out's of the Holidays for the Highly Sensitive

By Brenda Knowles

For those of us with a highly sensitive nervous system - 15-20% of the population processes nuances and stimulation at a greater level of intensity - the holiday season can bring extra trepidation. We feel the pressure to put ourselves out in the midst of the holiday hustle and bustle and we feel the need to protect ourselves from overstimulation.

This time of year, puts many of us face to face with forced socializing, hosting, family drama and paradoxically, feelings of loneliness. Dr. Elaine Aron, author of "The Highly Sensitive Person", says we often feel we are "too out" or "too in".

If we fall to society's prescription to live gregariously, exploring and joining groups as often as possible, we may push ourselves beyond our comfortable arousal level. Sustaining that uncomfortable level leads to exhaustion.

If we succumb to a fear we may have developed in childhood (from overprotective or neglectful parents), that says, "You are not strong enough to handle the noisy world", we may retreat to the point of loneliness and miss out on energizing and fulfilling connections.

Dr. Amy Banks, former instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of "Wired to Connect", says we are literally made for connection. As children, our mammalian brains require connection with our parents or caregivers for survival. We receive hits of dopamine (pleasure and motivation neurotransmitter in our bodies) when we connect with others. We take the neural and emotional connections created in infancy and childhood into our adult relationships.

If we are born with high sensitivity and our early connections with our parents were secure, meaning our parents were consistently caring and responsive, we are able to tolerate changes, stimulation and the unfamiliar better without sustaining long-term arousal.

If our connections with our caregivers were not secure, meaning they were not consistently available or emotionally attuned with us, there is an extra element of difficulty during times of family/friend gatherings. We tend to feel more stress and our nervous systems remain on high alert. We want to retreat.

How to remedy holiday stress

  1. Spend time with safe people. Who are safe people? According to Dr. Banks, they are the ones we can trust with our feelings. They make us feel calm. It is safe being in conflict with them. They make us feel valued and respected. We can count on them. With safe people in our lives, we have more tolerance for disruption and chaos.

  2. Don't regularly avoid stimulation. Dr. Aron says that as we re-parent our body, the first thing to realize is that the more it avoids stimulation, the more arousing the remaining stimulation becomes. Ever notice if you stay in all weekend, Monday morning at work seems especially jarring? The more we take action, the less overwhelming the actions seem. This is called habituation.

  3. Sleep and rest. The quickest way to reduce stimulation is to close our eyes. 80% of our sensory information comes from sight. Sleep and rest are vital to an HSP. They allow our nervous system to step back from high vigilance. Rest might include our version of play - reading a book, gardening, going for a slow walk, etc.- or it may even include meditation. Dr. Aron says meditation provides the deepest form of rest while the mind is still alert.

  4. Plan ahead and leave space between events. Do not plan on hopping from one family gathering to another during the holidays. 

  5. Pay attention to your body. If your chest feels tight, your stomach aches or your brain feels cottony and numb, beg off from an event. These are signals you need to slow down.

  6. Give yourself a break if there are sudden changes. All of those plans and preparations we make to help us feel in control, often shift at the last minute. This can be hard for an HSP to process. Give yourself permission to step back and reassess. If something has to be canceled to save your sanity, it is OK.

With these few reminders about how to traverse the holidays, it is possible our connections will energize us as much as our solitude.

Brenda Knowles is the creator of, the website where sensitive people learn to build emotional and relationship resilience. Brenda has written over 400 posts on introversion, relationships, anxiety, depression and parenting. She is trained in family mediation and child advocacy. She is also the author of The Quiet Rise of Introverts: 8 Practices for Living and Loving in a Noisy World. Permission granted for use on
Tags: Behavior, Holidays, Mental Health, Personal Responsibility, Relationships, Stress
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