Shortly after turning 30, I discovered a book that helped me understand myself more than any previous diagnosis pinned on me by doctors, or any mind-altering medication I’d been prescribed throughout my 20’s for a plethora of conditions from depression to anxiety to attention deficit disorder. It’s pretty ironic the thousands of dollars that went towards doctor’s visits and medications, when the most helpful thing for my self-awareness and health was a $2 book I found on a used bookstore shelf. The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron not only changed my perception of how I’d viewed myself and how I approached the world throughout my entire life, but it helped me to understand the love/hate relationship I have with one of the great joys of my life – travel. In this post, I want to discuss the ins and outs of traveling as a highly sensitive person (HSP), and why you should see this genetic trait as a gift rather than a hindrance.
So what is an HSP?
An HSP is someone who has sensory processing sensitivity. This is a genetic trait characterized by “an increased sensitivity of the central nervous system and a deeper cognitive processing of physical, social, and emotional stimuli” (1).
This trait has been observed in approximately 20% of the population, and while it may be confused with being simply shy or introverted, around 30% of HSPs are actually extroverted. While introversion is characterized by avoiding stimulation from contact with others, it is primarily sensory stimulation that affects highly sensitive individuals.
The Highly Sensitive Person has a self-assessment with 23 statements total, including these below. If any of them, or the following excerpt from the book resonate with you, you might be an HSP.
- Other people’s moods affect me.
- I am deeply moved by the arts or music.
- I become unpleasantly aroused when a lot is going on around me.
- I am annoyed when people try to get me to do too many things at once.
- I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, or coarse fabrics.
- I make it a high priority to arrange my life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations.
What seems ordinary to others, like loud music or crowds, can be highly stimulating and thus stressful for HSPs. Most people’s feet may be tired at the end of the day in a mall or a museum, but they’re ready for more when you suggest an evening party. HSPs need solitude after such a day. They feel jangled, overaroused.
Most people walk into a room and perhaps notice the furniture, the people – that’s about it. HSPs can be instantly aware…of the mood, the friendships and enmities, the freshness or staleness of the air, the personality of the one who arranged the flowers.
If you are an HSP, however, it is hard to grasp that you have some remarkable ability. Mostly you notice that you seem unable to tolerate as much as other people. You forget that you belong to a group that has often demonstrated great creativity, insight, passion and caring – all highly valued by society.
We are a package deal, however. Our trait of sensitivity means we will be cautious, inward, needing extra time alone. Because people without the trait (the majority) don’t understand that, they see us timid, shy, weak, or that greatest sin of all, unsociable. Fearing these labels, we try to be like others. But that leads to our becoming overaroused and distressed. Then that gets us labeled neurotic or crazy, first by others and then by ourselves.”Elaine Aron
Challenges of Traveling as an HSP
Based on the descriptions and definitions above, it’s easy to deduce that routine and well-known environments would be most comfortable for HSPs. Traveling challenges HSPs not only by stripping them of routine, but by introducing a constant stream of new sensations and situations. However, despite being easily overwhelmed, HSPs also thrive from processing the world deeply and still want to seek out new and fulfilling experiences. A portion of HSPs are also high sensation seekers (HSS), which means they search out activities that are likely to overwhelm them, such as ones that create a physical thrill, like skydiving.
In my opinion, the biggest issue you’ll face as a highly sensitive person isn’t anything to do with the trait itself – it’s how you are perceived from childhood by others, from peers to parents to teachers to employers. The feedback you receive from those around you can ultimately affect how you perceive yourself and hinder your ability to develop self-understanding and healthy coping mechanisms.
Unfortunately, the world does not tend to appreciate sensitive people. Conversely, it can be seen as a weakness or a flaw – something to be overcome. Even people who love you, and are accommodating of your needs, can find your sensitivity overwhelming. Truly understanding yourself and your needs, despite the external feedback you receive, will make it much easier to get through the world as a highly sensitive person.
Whether you are an HSP yourself, or you are traveling with one, here are a few tips to be prepared for the inevitable challenges that will arise for highly sensitive travelers.
Do your research in advance.
Advance research can help you in innumerable ways. Read reviews to determine when attractions are the least busy, or if they will be overwhelming no matter when you go. Map out your route for the day to avoid trying to decide what metro line you need in the middle of the rush hour crowd.
Have an idea of what’s in your general vicinity so you’re not faced with having to make decisions on the fly (like the dreaded “where should we eat?”). Look up how to order food in another language or translate a menu before you go.
Being prepared for what to expect in situations that can overwhelm your nervous system goes a long way in making sure you conserve your precious energy for the activities you don’t want to miss out on.
Give yourself recovery days.
Recovery days, or buffer days, are important before, during and after your trip. I typically need one full day off work before and after travel days to prepare, and then to wind down and relax. Travel days can be particularly difficult for HSPs because they are long, involve a lot of human interaction, noise, and little personal space.
No matter how prepared you are during your trips, you will still likely need a few days to do nothing in between your activities. For me, even if I’m leisurely wandering through a city on foot, I will find myself exhausted later simply from the auditory and visual stimulation I unconsciously take in along the way.
Take plenty of time.
No one likes to be left rushing around, or trying to cram too many things into one day, but it can really overwhelm the nervous system of an HSP. Leave plenty of time to get where you need to go if you’re on a time limit (even if that means sitting in the airport for the full 3 hours before an international flight).
And don’t try to do everything! Because HSPs have a deep and emotional inner world, it’s important to take the time to allow yourself to enjoy your experiences. Walking quickly through a museum so you have time to go to another one before closing time won’t fulfill you as much as stopping to actually process the art that holds meaning for you.
If you are traveling for an extended amount of time, develop a routine – whatever that looks like for you. For example, during our recent time in Oaxaca, Kelton and I walked to a cafe each morning for a coffee before heading off to our activity of the day. Once we were finished, we would head back to the house to work separately for a few hours in the afternoon, before going out to grab dinner at a market or from a street vendor.
The balance of that routine worked very well for us because I never felt too overwhelmed by the day, and I knew that in the afternoon, I would have quiet time to read or work. When you’re on a trip, it really helps to schedule time in your itinerary for yourself, and if possible, not to fill the entire day with activities. If you have a particularly long tour booked, it might help to take the next day completely off.
Make sure you have food options.
Being a highly sensitive person even affects the way you process food. Typically a symptom of diabetes, hypoglycemia is a condition which causes your blood sugar levels to be below the normal range. If you struggle with becoming “hangry” or get headaches a lot, it’s important to have snacks around and to eat frequent but smaller meals. I always like to stop at a market or grocery store when I arrive at a new place so I can stock the kitchen with a few basics, and have something to take along on day trips.
Restaurants can often be quite overwhelming, with all the music, conversations, and amount of choices. Some days, just the thought of going out to dinner is exhausting, so it helps to have some backup food options available in your accommodation.
Also, like I mentioned in one of my earlier tips, it helps to be aware of the restaurant choices that will be available to you in advance. Usually, by the time you realize you need food, you’re too overwhelmed by unfamiliar choices to make a decision.
Travel during the low season.
More people obviously leads to more traffic, more crowds, busier public transportation, over-booked restaurants, etc. Traveling during the low season will give you a slight reprieve from the typical cacophony of high season.
Coincidentally, some of these tips overlap with my advice for how to embrace slow travel, which you can read about here. I have found slow travel really suits my needs as a highly sensitive traveler.
Spend time in nature.
If you’ve been overstimulated for a couple days in a row, but don’t feel like holing up inside, look for a quiet park or recommended hiking path. Most HSPs feel rejuvenated by spending time in nature because it engages our senses in a positive way. The wide open spaces, beautiful views, and calming sounds will allow you to enjoy the present moment, reconnect with yourself, quiet your mind, and release any pent up anxiety.
Travel with people who support you and don’t feel guilty for taking alone time.
This one is really important. Traveling with someone who belittles you for your needs, or ignores them, is the fastest way to ruin your trip and completely overextend yourself. Since up to 40% of the population reports having little to no sensitivity, and society often devalues sensitive people, they probably won’t understand how it feels and may even tell you just to get over it.
While my partner is not highly sensitive, and doesn’t really understand how it feels, he is always willing to let me stay back and read while he goes out to explore. He’ll research restaurant choices for me in advance and narrow it down to just 2-3 choices so I don’t have to. If he notices I’m having an anxiety response to being overstimulated, he’ll find a place off to the side of the crowd and help me take a couple of deep breaths.
Because HSPs can be emotional sponges, any negative energy directed to you will be very apparent. Despite the tendency of HSPs to avoid conflict and be people-pleasers, if you’ve really tried to explain your sensitivity to a friend or partner, and they still push you past your limits, it might be a better idea to consider traveling solo.
Wear comfortable clothing.
As I mentioned in my post about packing for long term trips (here), uncomfortable clothing can really distract HSPs. Certain textures or fit issues can overwhelm us to the point of not being able to focus on anything else. When traveling, make sure to take items that you’ve worn previously and know you are comfortable in. For me, this means clothes made from natural fibers that aren’t too tight. You know yourself best.
Bring a safety blanket.
This tip will vary widely from person to person, because every HSP will have a different combination of stimuli that triggers their nervous system the most. Depending on what that is for you, you might want to bring ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones, a book or Kindle, an eye mask, or a comforting item of clothing. Or you might want to meditate or journal each morning or before bed. Experiment with what makes you feel best when you are overaroused and then make sure it’s available to you when you need it.
Seeing Sensitivity as a Gift
Reading that list of tips might have made you ask yourself, “why do I have to be this way?” I can’t tell you how many times I felt that same way throughout my life. Why can’t I keep up with other people? Why am I so tired? Why am I so overwhelmed? It’s easy to see yourself as the problem – the thing that needs to be fixed. So much time is spent acclimating to your sensitive nervous system that it can be easy to overlook the qualities that make you a special and necessary part of the world.
For one, you are highly intuitive – noticing small changes in expressions or voices that allow you to be in tune with everyone around you. This can be quite hard at times, especially when surrounded by strong emotions like grief or anger, but it also can help you form very meaningful attachments with others or even notice when you or others might be in danger.
Your ability to engage in deep, meaningful conversations and approach problems in a gentle and reasonable way is an important part of the balance needed to enact ethical practices in a number of fields. Elaine Aron says that throughout history, there have been “royal advisors” and “warrior kings.” Even in aggressive societies, the highly sensitive individuals in roles such as counselors, historians, or philosophers help keep the impulses of the warrior kings in check by considering all aspects of a decision and how it will affect others.
In terms of travel, being an HSP makes it easy to appreciate all the little things that others may overlook, and it makes you more conscientious. Because of your love for nature, and your empathy for others, you treat the places you visit, and the people who call it home, with positive curiosity and respect.
These are just a few of the ways that being a highly sensitive person makes you an invaluable part of society, and while it can take some time to become well-adapted and self-aware enough to realize the depth of your potential, being highly sensitive allows you to be mindful in ways other cannot.
This 15 minute Ted Talk is a wonderful introduction to the unique capabilities of HSPs.