How to travel as a Highly Sensitive Person
Right now I’m in a clean, stark-white hostel room in Singapore, kids delightfully absent for a few minutes because Kyle took them to the top floor to grab breakfast. My earbuds are playing classical music to drown out the buzz of the fluorescent lights and the general noise (what is that, anyway?) coming from the pipes.
I never knew I was a Highly Sensitive Person until I read stuff from my friend Megan. Some of the things she described sounded painfully familiar, and after taking the online test to reveal a score of 22 out of 27, I decided I’m most definitely an HSP. My entire life, I’ve felt more affected than others around me by seemingly small things—lighting, sounds, smells, violence in movies.
It’s helped enormously to have this framework of understanding—now I can call myself an HSP and not a crazy person—but I’ve also become much more aware of the specific challenges to travel as someone with high sensitivities. I’m living testimony that travel and being sensitive aren’t exclusive to each other, but a little planning and forethought do go a long way.
Here are some things that are helping me right now.
1. Communicate often with the family.
Kyle isn’t an HSP, so he’s not being a jerk when he doesn’t notice that every child is talking to me at the same time in an echoey concrete room the size of a postage stamp, or that the smell of raw chicken where we’re standing on the street corner is a bit overwhelming, or that he’s sitting too close to me on the bus and we’re dripping with sweat—he simply doesn’t notice these things the way I do.
The sensory overload that comes with travel is adventurous to him; big city cacophony or well-intentioned old people yelling at you in their native tongue is part and parcel of travel—why not just go with the flow and smile at the whole thing? That’s his motto. Me? After a day of this I’m dying to retreat to a dark, cool room and swim in an hour of silence.
I need to tell him often how I’m feeling. Not in a demanding, everyone-stop-and-cater-to-me sort of way, but with honest, calm, and forthright words that explain that I’m feeling overwhelmed, and at some point I’m going to need to take care of myself lest I curl into the fetal position right here on the metro.
I’ve found a simple, “Hey guys—you’re all talking to me at the same time. I need a few minutes of silence and then I’ll be able to hear you better, one at a time” goes a long way with the kids, too. And it also helps me remember that they’re not all out to get me—they simply don’t notice all the sensory overload they’re pouring over me.
Basically, gracious honesty goes a long way as a traveling HSP.
2. Journal, read, memorize.
This entire post has stemmed from my need to process through journaling. Maybe this is just me and not so much an HSP thing, but I’ve discovered that it pays in dividends when I take time to internally process my thoughts.
Sensory overload happens when I’m bombarded with a lot of stuff all at once, and slowing down to journal means I’m dissecting things slower, more intentionally, methodically.
Reading also gives me a place of healthy escape when I can’t literally go elsewhere. Surprisingly, while I’ve enjoyed reading books set in or about my current locale, I’ve lately found myself drawn to books completely unrelated to my surroundings—it’s as though my brain simply needs to find something else to think about for a bit.
And memory work—scripture, poetry, prayers, quotes—has been helpful, too. Especially when they’re short. Something about fully committing to memory a short snippet of truth or beauty helps center my personhood when I’m in the midst of crazy.
3. Find nature when you can.
Not surprisingly, I’m more overwhelmed when we’re traveling through big cities. The concrete, the crowds, and the public transportation—and keeping up with three kids in the midst of it—add up to a recipe for serious sensitivity overload. Even in clean, delightful cities like Singapore or Hong Kong.
When we find a bit of green space and a break from city noise, it feels like someone has opened my valve where I can deflate a bit. Just yesterday, we walked through a park right in the heart of Singapore, and I left feeling a million times more centered.
Even better, it helps to schedule some smaller towns and countryside visits in between major cities. It can’t always be planned this methodically, but we’re learning to not overdo it with the megacities—we all need a little selah out in creation, not just me.
4. Enforce quiet times.
Again, this isn’t always possible, but whenever we can, we’re keeping up with our long-held tradition of afternoon quiet times. Back in our “real life,” everybody in the family was graced with an hour break from each other; you can do whatever you want so long as it’s quiet, and so long as it’s in your room (or your assigned quiet time room, when you have to share sleeping quarters).
We do what we can to make this work on the road. Right now for example, in this one-room, bunk-style situation, we’ve asked the kids to stay on their beds and to stay quiet for an hour in the afternoons. Does it work flawlessly? Not on your life. (The oldest is great with this; she loves QT as much as me. The boys, however, have little concept of time. Or quiet, for that matter.) But it’s better than nothing.
No, it’s not ideal. And it’ll be great to return to larger, more permanent living quarters where QTs are more like, well, quiet times. But this is a partial solution for now, and it’s helped me more than I thought it would.
5. Earbuds and eye mask.
I’ve saved the best for last. I’m floored how much these two small devices have saved my sanity on our trip so far—high-quality earbuds (I love the Skull Candy brand) and a serious eye mask (I’ve got the one from Lewis & Clark) take me to a world all my own in the midst of chaos.
Especially the eye mask—this one is so comfortable and effective, I can actually sleep in a brightly-lit room and never be the wiser. (Kyle’s probably sick of me daily singing its praises.)
An added bonus to both of these items: when the kids see me donning them, they know I’m not available. It’s not quite as effective as actually leaving their presence and going to work at a coffee shop, but it’s the next best thing. (In fact, they’ve now returned to the room from breakfast, and they all know to keep letting me do my thing here because they see the earbuds in, locked and loaded.)
I honestly, truly don’t think I’d have survived thus far without my eye mask or earbuds, and I’m not exaggerating. These two items have been my lifeline.
In reading all this, you might wonder why someone like me would love travel at all. Sometimes I wonder that myself. It might be a contradiction, but there it is… Yep, I love to travel, and yep, I’m an HSP. I truly do love exploring the world and discovering new places. But I also get easily overwhelmed.
I hope this encourages other HSPs that travel (especially cross-cultural travel) is possible. And I hope this encourages those who travel with HSPs to give grace and space to their need to process their surroundings differently. It’s given me great freedom to acknowledge this in my life.
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