ON A VACATION HOME FROM COLLEGE, I walked around a bookstore feeling a little lost and lonely. In the Recommended section was a book called The Highly Sensitive Person. Never had I felt so much resonance with a title. I bought it that day.
The author, Dr. Elaine Aron, is a San Francisco-based psychologist who coined the term. She estimates that around 20% of the US population are highly sensitive.
Highly Sensitive People tend to “feel easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics…sirens.” They also tend to have a “rich and complex inner life,” and react strongly to beautiful music and art.
Sensitivity in a person is an important trait: HSPs are often the first to become aware of an emergency, like a fire or a dangerous storm, and can alert everyone around them. They can also make the rest of society more aware of spirituality, art, and social issues like poverty and injustice.
But if you’re from North America, or most Western societies really, sensitivity is not a culturally valued quality. Chances are, if you’re an HSP, at some point you’ve felt shamed or not good enough for having these feelings.
Aron argues that a big part of wellness for HSPs is self-care. Just a little bit can lead to a lot more life harmony. Here are some things I do on the road that help me nurture my sensitivity and stay sane.
1. Find the water.
Drink it, take a shower, or walk on a beach or near a bay. Water is a naturally soothing and neutralizing force. Just taking a moment to drink a cup of water can reorient me to my body.
2. Make compromises.
HSPs have comfort zones that are a little different from everyone else’s. While my boyfriend is happy to spend the morning hiking, the afternoon at a music festival, and the evening at a midnight viewing of The Room, I would really struggle to do this. It’s best to let him do his own thing while I rest and regroup, or write in a coffeeshop.
It’s also important for me to pick one thing that’s a little out of my comfort zone. Even though music festivals aren’t my thing — the crowds, exposure to the elements, and sense of being stuck there are most HSPs’ worst nightmare — with enough preparation and downtime I can make the effort. It’s important not to bail on everything because I feel overwhelmed, as that would lead to feelings of guilt and genuine sadness.
3. Honor your sensitivity.
It’s a gift, not a character flaw. Maybe your friends want to go dancing all night, or rock climbing all day. You, in turn, have the right to seek out activities that speak to your essence. For me, that’s museums, or visiting community art projects (like Ex-Carcel in Valparaíso or the Royal Chicano Airforce murals in Sacramento), or getting out to cultural ceremonies.
If you have the money, honoring your sensitivity can be as simple as having a spa day or taking a relaxing trip to a teahouse.
4. Keep a routine / respect transitional time.
For me, that means waking up, brewing coffee, and reading the news in bed for an hour. That is sacred time. It allows me to transition from sleep to wakefulness, and such practices are encouraged by many communities. Many North American tribes have early morning songs that consecrate the beginning of each day.
Honoring the space between things is not something my culture of origin does very well, so I look to other societies for guidance.
5. Get your potassium, child.
Bananas have mild sedative effects and they’re hella cheap. If you’re traveling in high altitude, or have a spot of food poisoning, bananas are probably your best bet for something that will sit well. Plus, a healthy potassium intake can reduce your overall blood pressure. White potatoes, avocados, spinach, and fish are also rich in the K.
6. Take a mantra.
Mine changes all the time. My mom’s is “This time tomorrow, it will all be over.” “Om Namah Shivaya” is a tried and true Hindu blessing. My Mexican host mother, upon watching me go through a breakup, would say, “No te mortifiques, Anne.” Don’t beat yourself up, Anne. Most recently, I’ve adopted the following: “You are safe. You are loved. You have options.”
7. Utilize your creative outlet.
I’m lucky to have many. I write, edit audio, sing, and play guitar. But sometimes just spending a few hours in the kitchen can be a truly artistic and soulful action. I love staying in Airbnb apartments — there’s almost always a kitchen open for communal use. There’s something about getting to that archetypal hearth that’s deeply grounding.
8. When all else fails, lie down.
I met a curandera (healer) once who said that a lot of our chronic illness could be solved by more bed rest. There’s no shame in binge-watching a show on Netflix, your head and neck supported by pillows, and tuning out a little. Even if you’re in the middle of New York City or Buenos Aires. Especially if you’re in one of these busy cities, taking the time to recharge can enrich your overall experience, and cut down on potential conflicts with your travel buddies.
When you’re ready to re-emerge, your regular travel activities will be that much richer.