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.

books coffee sunnies

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.

yangshuo

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.)

eyemask earbuds

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.

30 Comments

  1. Angela Mills

    Thanks for linking to the test! I just recently read about HSPs on Modern Mrs. Darcy and I suspected I fit the bill. I got 25, so I am ordering the book! This might be why travel sounds so fun to me, but I feel I could never be away from home more than a few days. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

  2. Taura Gaffney

    Thank you SO very much for blogging about this topic today! I had never heard of HSP before, but I answered 25/27 on the test. I’m very surprised and this answers so many questions I’ve had about myself with past travels! I’ve been asked why I continue to want to travel to new places whenever I seem to always get myself worked up, stressed out, and into a fight with a good friend over something seemingly unimportant. And it’s usually because we’re hungry and really just need to take a breather! I hope that this helps me in the future to be able to say “I love you all, but I’m having a highly-sensitive moment right now and just need to take a minute to calm down until I can be rational again.” They might think I’m crazy at first, but they can’t think I’m any crazier than my peeves about the sound of other people chewing food or the smell of chicken cooking outside of a restaurant and why I don’t like to eat a certain places because of it!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yep! Totally understand, Taura. Glad it provided some insight.

  3. Yin

    welcome to Singapore! I’m Singaporean and have been following your blog & travels. While you are there we are traveling in Taiwan right now. It has been interesting getting excited with you as you prepared for your RTW trip and reading how you are finding & responding to unfamiliar surroundings. Even we who are born & bred here love to escape the crowds & bustle every once in a while. We too were unprepared for the crowds and tourists in Taiwan. Right now we are at a beautiful mountain and my family are happily having instant noodles in a convenience store. We are supposed to be having tea on the tea terraces, but who cares, whatever keeps them happy for more adventures later. And all of it make special memories! May you make lots of wonderful memories in Singapore!

  4. Amanda Coolidge

    Hi Tsh!

    I have been loving all of your posts about your year of travel and it is truly inspiring. I’m wondering if you have considered being interviewed for your podcast- as in YOU be the guest. I think it would be fascinating to hear what a day in the life is like for you, your kids, etc. How do you build in home schooling while traveling? What have been the best moments and what have been the most challenging? If you had recommendations for people doing this, what would they be…

    Just some thoughts and I am sure others would find it pretty cool too 🙂

    Keep it up!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Amanda, I’m actually thinking of doing that EXACT thing – mostly because it’s just too hard to schedule a Skype chat while we travel, what with time zone differences and unpredictable wifi. I can record me talking anywhere, anytime, so long as it’s relatively quiet. I just haven’t been sure I’d be interesting enough to talk to just me. 😉

  5. Laura M

    Oh I can relate to this! But it wasn’t til my kids were diagnosed with SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) and we started working with an occupational therapist for them, that I realized that we were also talking about ME! Such a relief to finally not feel plain old crazy with all these hyper-sensitivities of mine. I actually wrote a post about this realization on my blog last month, if you’d care for some camaraderie! Do you mind if I include the link? http://ourgardeninthecity.blogspot.ca/2014/11/how-were-wired.html
    Back to your post, I’m going to try an eye mask!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yeah, my middle guy has SPD as well, but he’s a sensory SEEKER. You can imagine the sensory overwhelm with him sometimes! 🙂 Things like crowded subways and loud streets actually calm him down. It’s wild.

      (And yes, you can link!)

  6. Pamela

    I nodded my head all the way through your post. I’m HSP, too, and the past two summers I’ve traveled to Beirut to work with a Lebanese NGO. My team knew that if I had my sunglasses on (inside or out) *and* my earbuds in, I was off limits, and they were super respectful of that.
    Thanks for sharing your trip.

  7. Jill

    This has opened up so much for me. I’ve always been told to stop worrying or just calm down or other such stuff, as though I’d never thought of it myself and would prefer being wound up like a top. Nope. Just needing some quiet alone time to process all the awesome info this world has to offer. Thank you for giving me verbiage to describe what I deal with every day. I feel I have the tools now to shape this life instead of being battered by it. In the fetal position.

  8. Guest

    I’m also an HSP though I’m an extroverted HSP. On top of that, I have IBS. It’s probably the biggest reason we haven’t been traveling like we used to. The excitement/stress of travel can be a trigger for an IBS flare up which makes travel far less appealing.

    I’m kind of hoping you have some readers who also struggle with this and maybe they could provide some tips?

  9. michelle t

    I really admire you. I’m an HSP too. I wish I could be as adventurous as you, that’s awesome. Thanks for sharing your experience. Michelle t

  10. jill britz

    Yes!! Last week I had the donning thought: you are not just a piece of work, you are an HSP. In NYC in January with 3 kids + a toddler, I did okay in Chinatown, in manhattan, on the subway, but when we stepped into prospect park, empty of folk & glitz, my soul opened up. Now I know why.

    Thank you for legitimizing what I thought was my crazy. Long live the hsp’s open road!

  11. Anna M

    Thanks for sharing this Tsh. I too am a HSP that loves to travel. Usually that works for me but I have been nervous about an upcoming trip to China where I get zero control over the itinerary. I will certainly use these tips!

  12. Susan Chamberlain Shipe

    I am loving your posts and travel logs!! Just took the sensitivity test…I scored 20. I’m now in the market for a L&C eye mask!

  13. Laurie B

    Thank you!

  14. Marian Vischer

    I took the HSP test because Emily Freeman linked to it {and you.} Wow. I’m totally an HSP. {Why is it so comforting to have a “label?” I thought I was just high-strung and weird.} This is super fascinating so I had to get the book too. Anyway, THANK YOU. I’m a big Enneagram geek {I know you are too} and it was super life-changing for me. I’m thinking this HSP thing might be in the same category. : ) Love, love, love this post and topic.

    Also, ear buds just went on my Christmas list.

  15. Jamie Morphew

    Wow! Light bulb moment! Thank you so much for this post, Tsh!

  16. Tracey

    23/27. And when I told my husband, his response was one of surprise that I had never considered myself an HSP before now. It’s way better being an HSP than a crazy person. Thanks, Tsh!

  17. Megan

    Thirty years ago I could not have related to this post but as I near 50 I get it. Not sure if I have become more highly sensitive with age (or teenagers) or if I am just more self aware now.

  18. Lisa

    This post has been very insightful for me! Thank you so much for sharing this info!

  19. Robin Smith

    I’m realizing that I’m HSP and why I like the idea of traveling to big cities and plan all kinds of fun stuff to do, but then about one day of all the people and noise and crowds is all I can handle! And why I don’t think national parks will be much fun, but I love it when I’m there.

  20. Elizabeth

    Tsh, I am a relatively new reader of your blog and am seriously blown away. Not only because I value simple living ( and learned it from growing up in France and Singapore, as a dual citizen and Third Culture Kid) but because our family is also nomadic. Did I see a photo of you guys in Rawai on your about page? We have been living in Phuket for almost 4 years. :)I’m also a Highly Sensitive traveler and am wondering how our possible move to Bangkok will go. I love and hate that city. It’s chaotic ( even more so than Singapore) but as a writer and photographer I’m attached to its quiet nooks, from little cafes at the BTS station to hidden Vietnamese joints. Cannot wait to read your books!

  21. Paula Clare

    THANK YOU for this! I am a Missions Deacon at our church and travel is part of what I KNOW God has called me to do…I just never understood WHY when it totally RATTLES me and makes me an anxious heap prior to getting there. Once I’m “in city” I seem to acclimate to the work we have to do…but I am just “prepared” for overload. Doing this even though it’s hard has been the best thing for me..and “bunk style sleeping quarters” (which are typical on a mission trip) were cause for sleepless nights and exhausting days…UNTIL the eye mask and ear buds! NOW I put in meditative music or prayers and float away on a cloud of calm and dark…which makes me a MUCH easier person to get along with the next day! I’m a 20 on the HSP…and a recovering PTSD person as well,but I’ve found God equips those whom He/She calls, so I’m good! Thank you for these tips…the nature walks and the quiet time in the afternoons are life saving!

  22. Darcy Wiley

    I’ve known for since childhood that I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. It makes life more special and more difficult at the same time. The strategies you shared here are so helpful in learning how to function, especially as I have three very creative, active, talkative kiddos who constantly have ideas to run by me. I have to use earplugs on road trips and plane rides to take the edge off so I don’t lose my cool. I’ve written a bit about over-stimulation in the context of motherhood, how sensory overload comes when we are in a passive position, receiving input without an active, intentional outflow of our own thoughts/energy (I’ll link to that particular post when I fill in my website info). Interesting to consider it in terms of travel, too. I think that’s one reason why I actually haven’t minded the times when I’ve had to travel alone. It’s easier to enjoy all the stimuli when I can use my full attention to take it in and process it.

  23. Shelley young

    I have what I hope isn’t a silly question. Do you have music or anything playing in your ear buds when you have them in? I am a newly-discovered HSP and I’ve never been a music person – I have a tough time managing what feels like noise to me unless I’ve specifically decided that “I’m going to listen to music now”. But I’d love to have something to give me some peace when the world around me is being crazy!

    • Sarah Shotts

      I love listening to the sound of rain or the recorded sounds of a train. So soothing. 🙂

  24. Sarah Shotts

    This really resonated with me as a HSP and person who loves to travel. Thanks for sharing your tips and your story. It’s great to know I’m not alone. Since reading Susan Cain’s Quiet I’ve been giving myself a lot more grace for my sensitivities and my need to recharge and am able to accomplish so much more now that I do! It’s so hard to be kind to ourselves at times.

  25. Mary S. ("Marso")

    So glad to find your blog. The title of this post is exactly the question I had! Thank you!

  26. Bàn phím Macbook pro

    Hmm it seems like your site ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and
    say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to everything.
    Do you have any points for newbie blog writers?
    I’d definitely appreciate it.

Get the weekly email called
5 Quick Things,

where Tsh shares stuff she either created herself or loved from others.
(It can be read in under a minute, pinky-swear.)