Dr. Elayne Daniels

While everyone feels the end-of-year pressure, navigating the holidays as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) can be especially chaotic. When it comes to the holiday season, there can be a fine line between magic and madness. From the moment Santa signals the beginning of the Christmas season with his Macy’s wave, the race is on.

If you have high sensitivity, you know that everyday life is a lesson in nervous system regulation. Your brain is wired to “take it all in”… and process it ad nauseum.

Not exactly a recipe for sleeping in heavenly peace, especially when Christmas culture crams a year of stimulation into a few short weeks.

Perhaps this year you’ll be gathering with loved ones, enjoying lavish spreads, and partaking in long-held family traditions. 

You might be in store for the warm, familiar aroma of potato latkes on the stove or the smell of pine wreaths and candles in the air.

Regardless of the particulars, get ready for what just may be a rollercoaster ride through tinsel, carol-singing, menorah-lighting, and family-member idiosyncrasies.

Holiday family gatherings are, after all, a tender blend of love, reminiscence, and self-preservation.

Because navigating the holidays as an HSP can be as lonely as it’s challenging, I’m swooping in and have your back. Below is an HSP Holiday Survival Kit – an HSP guide for the holiday season. 

From noise-canceling earmuffs to an emergency chocolate stash, let’s delve into the must-haves for preserving your sanity amid the holiday hustle and bustle.

10 Tips for Surviving the Holidays as an HSP

Let’s just start with a little positivity, courtesy of The Polar Express: 

Believe!

You can do this. You can successfully navigate the holidays as an HSP and enjoy yourself in the process.

Below are 10 intuitive tips for surviving the holidays HSP-style:

  1. Tame the (decorative) dragon
  2. Embrace imperfection and personalize holiday celebrations
  3. Master the ugly-holiday sweater dilemma 
  4. Learn the subtle art of HSP holiday gift-giving
  5. Dodge small-talk bullets
  6. Direct the HSP holiday cuisine conundrum in your favor
  7. Dodge triggers
  8. Silent night, peaceful night
  9. Mindful reflection
  10. The aftermath

Now let’s break them down into actionable, feel-good pieces:

Tame the (decorative) dragon

Learn the delicate art of keeping your living space festive  – without overwhelming your HSP senses. 

Strategically placed decorations are lovely, as is the importance of maintaining a safe distance from delicate tchotchkes or ornaments.

Sometimes less really is more. And, when it comes to holiday decorations, smaller can actually be more meaningful, as every expression will have meaning and purpose.

And remember, what goes up must come down. So consider the post-holiday clean-up and be kind to yourself when it comes to expectations. 

Compassionately navigating the holidays as a Highly Sensitive Person involves anticipating the big picture and deciding how much of it you can handle.

Embrace imperfection and personalize holiday celebrations

Understand that the holidays (for HSPs and non-HSPs alike) don’t have to be perfect. Embrace imperfections. Find and focus on moments that bring genuine joy.

Establish traditions that resonate with you. Create rituals that align with your values and bring joy. Maybe there is a Mensch on the Bench game, gingerbread- house decorating, cookie swap, or a holiday movie you watch each year. 

Sometimes the familiarity of things you have always done can be soothing to a brain that is already on overload.

Master the ugly-holiday sweater dilemma

Navigate with finesse the waters of ugly-sweater or other themed parties. There is an art to finding the balance between flair and sensory-friendly comfort.

Be sure to take time to check in with yourself. Tune into your own nervous system. Notice with curiosity how you feel in your body at the moment. 

Take mini breaks from social engagement to check -in with yourself help. They can be the difference between abruptly leaving the party because of overstimulation and seamlessly leaving the party with other guests.

(Plus, you are less likely to wake up the next morning with a party hangover.)

Learn the subtle art of holiday gift-giving for HSPs

Uncover the secrets of giving and receiving gifts without triggering sensory overload. Learn how to drop hints like a ninja and decode the unwritten rules of polite gift-reactions. 

(Hint: Practice the “surprised but delighted” facial expression in the mirror.)

On a practical note, consider gift-giving boundaries. Set a budget and realistic expectations. Consider handmade gifts to add a personal touch without the pressure of extravagant purchases.

Dodge small-talk bullets

Survive family and friend gatherings with sanity intact by mastering the art of small- talk. 

Discover clever conversation redirects and escape routes that will make you the royalty of polite avoidance. 

Bonus tip: Bring a pet! (Well-behaved and pre-announced, of course.) Nothing says, “Let’s talk about my dog’s funny antics”’ ‘ like a four- legged fur ball by your side. And nothing provides a better escape clause than your little buddy’s eating and walking schedule.

It’s okay to set limits on social engagements. Prioritize events that truly matter to you. Those that are particularly meaningful tend to be more manageable and comfortable events. 

Remember, you don’t have to accept all invitations. Opt for smaller, more intimate gatherings over large, crowded events. This one action alone can create a much more comfortable environment for HSPs.

Direct the cuisine conundrum in your favor

Explore the culinary challenges of holiday feasts and discover the balance between politeness and dietary restrictions. Learn the subtle art of navigating potluck dinners.

Even if you anticipate a large holiday meal later in the day, please eat consistently. Prevent blood sugar crashes to keep your mood regulated and biology stable. As you likely know, HSPs are prone to “hanger” (anger plus hunger).

Dodge triggers

If, for example, you have a problematic relationship with alcohol, limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Or drink none at all. 

In advance, practice ways to politely decline offers to drink. If you anticipate others will pressure you to drink, what can you do or say to bring this to a screeching halt?

Family holiday gatherings are a tempting time to engage in old thought and behavior patterns. Avoid doing that. Do not worry about hurting other people’s feelings by saying “no thank you”.

You do have control over what you allow into both your brain and your body. Remember this as you’re navigating the holidays, especially as an HSP.

Silent night, peaceful night

Cater to your need for alone – and decompression – time by creating your own haven of tranquility amidst holiday chaos. 

Find quiet corners, craft DIY sensory retreats, and work the fine art of politely excusing yourself to escape holiday cacophony.

Low- impact, gentle activity can help you feel more grounded. Go for a short walk in the safety of the neighborhood. Maybe ask to walk the hosts’ dog if they have one. Or walk your own if you brought your buddy with you. Incorporate downtime for yourself as an essential component of navigating the holidays as a Highly Sensitive Person. holiday celebrations. You may even pre-book some self-care activities.

Do not let the busy-ness of the holidays prevent you from taking care of yourself!

Mindful reflection

Take time to reflect on the past year and express gratitude for positive experiences. Allow yourself to acknowledge what has been difficult, highlighting the strength you found within to get through. This practice can help ground you and foster a sense of contentment.

Fitting in some quiet time each day and/or night is a practice your nervous system will thank you for.

The aftermath

As the holiday dust settles, recuperate from any sensory- overload nervous system dysregulation. Delve into the world of self-care and the magic of post-holiday naps. (Spoiler: A good book can work wonders.)

Armed with your HSP survival kit, ninja small-talk skills, and a newfound appreciation for the power of a well-placed dog story, you’re ready to face the new year with grace, humor, and sanity intact.

May your holidays be merry, bright (but not so bright that your eyes hurt), and delightfully drama-free. 

You need not sacrifice joy for comfort. (Remember the noise-canceling earmuffs and stash of chocolate bars?) Prioritize what truly matters to you. Remember the reason for this season.

Wishing you a serene and joyful holiday season!

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a psychologist, consultant, and international coach in the Boston area whose passion is to help people celebrate their High Sensitivity…and shine their light.

To read more about High Sensitivity, check out some blogs here.

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