Traveling as an HSP can be daunting. Believe me, I know.
I’ve been living abroad for more than six years. Before that, I spent three years as part-student, part itinerant worker, spending several weeks at a time in different states. Now that we’re entering 2020, I already have travel plans to visit several countries to visit family or attend professional conventions, not to mention going home to my native US at least twice.
Here’s the kicker, though: I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. On Dr. Elaine Aron’s famous self-test of 27 items, I scored a full 27. There’s no denying it. My sensory processing sensitivity levels are through the roof. So how does living abroad and traveling all. the. time. affect me as an HSP? How can an HSP survive the challenges of frequent travel?
Let’s take a look.
Traveling as an HSP: Situations to Avoid
Highly sensitive people have unique brain processing patterns due to something called Sensory Processing Sensitivity (SPS). SPS is a measurable trait that indicates a deep level of processing and higher sensitivity to external stimuli. HSP’s process information at a much deeper level, and need extra time to do so. One way this has been proven is in fMRI scans, which demonstrated that HSP brains light up more and take longer to solve change-detection tasks.
HSP’s are also more sensitive to external stimuli, becoming exhausted more quickly (probably because they are processing at a deeper level and are not good at blocking out stimuli). Dr. Elaine Aron compares this trait to fruit-sorting machines in packing plants that sort fruit into three slots according to size. HSP’s, she says, don’t have just three slots for big, medium, and small oranges. We have many slots, and need extra time to sort out information according to a more elaborate analysis.
With this background, it is easier to understand that there are three main situations that can cause overwhelm for an HSP while traveling:
- Overload of sensory input
- Inadequate processing time
- Basic needs met insufficiently
Let’s take a look at these three categories in more detail, and I’ll share some tips that have helped me keep up with the demanding travel schedule related to my spouse’s career.
Overload of Sensory Input
HSP’s analyze everything. Basically everything. A traveling HSP is no exception. They notice the geometric patterns in the airport bathroom flooring and the interesting shape of the security officer’s mustache. They notice the subtleties of difference between Lebanese baklawa and Turkish baklawa. The non-HSP hears a crowd; the HSP hears layers of conversations and picks up on the emotional overtones of this and that person. They don’t just see the cultural artifacts and costumes, they are constantly running a background program in their mind, asking complex questions about the way things are.
When at home or in familiar places, HSP’s learn to filter out “known” stimuli because it is not important to analyze or notice them. You might have experienced the feeling of driving to work and not remembering a single detail about the trip. HSP’s can ignore familiar stimuli. But when traveling, everything is new and impossible to block out. New sights and sounds and smells are like a huge pile of oranges being loaded into the sorting machine, ready to be analyzed and processed.
Non-HSP family members or friends may wish to “see everything” while visiting a new place. This can be stressful and overwhelming for a highly sensitive person.
Think of your limitations like the range of a car. As an HSP, you are like a Tesla X: all the latest and greatest features but a range of only about 325 miles per charge. In contrast, your energetic partner might be like the bulky Cadillac Escalade at 713 miles per tank. Nobody in their right mind would pay tens of thousands of dollars more for the Tesla X, which has a significantly lower range, unless there were important features that made it worth having.
Likewise, HSP’s have a shorter range, but more than make up for it with their depth of processing. Things that bombard us with sensory overload actually decrease our range, little by little, because they suck our energy out. My first recommendation for surviving (and enjoying!) your traveling experience is to intentionally limit the amount of sensory input you let in. For example:
- Invest in a good pair of sound-canceling headphones. I’ve had the Bose QC35II for several years now and absolutely love them. Being able to block out the roar of the engines during a long flight actually makes me feel less tired when I arrive, whether I sleep in the plane or not.
- Always take a sleep mask. You never know when you’ll need to sleep on the floor of an airport terminal or when you’ll get a hotel room with a huge, annoying crack of light under the door. With sound-canceling headphones and a sleep mask, you can still make your own little quiet place anywhere.
- Get comfortable sunglasses. In another article, I discuss bright light sensitivity among HSP’s. Whether you’re out and about in Nairobi, Chiang Mai, or Dubai, squinting all day takes its toll on your energy levels and can actually make you feel depleted more quickly.
- Avoid getting lost. This sounds like something everyone would like to avoid, but honestly, some people I’ve traveled with are so free spirited that they prefer to “explore” and just “see if we arrive.” This is a nightmare for HSP’s, because we typically don’t want to get lost and so we go into overdrive watching for clues that we’re heading in the right direction. By the time we get there (if we do), our sensory bank is completely overloaded and we might not even care about the destination anymore. 😂
- Don’t let anyone push you. Consider this famous video of the girl who was terrified to take the leap into the Grand Canyon (who knows, maybe she’s an HSP). After she hesitated through innumerable countdowns, her boyfriend actually pushed her off. First you hear her scream in terror, then she shouts, “I’m breaking up with you!” Don’t let anybody do this to you. Just. Don’t. If your partner or other travel buddies don’t respect your needs and limitations, find somebody else to travel with. Eventually, the couple did actually break up.
- Don’t feel bad to close your eyes. You’re driving in a bouncing bus to a destination far away from the airport and there are so many exciting new things passing by the windows. Your travel partner is oohing and ahhing and nudging you every few moments to look at something else. You know you should be enjoying the experience, but you’re just plain frazzled. Guess what? There’s nothing that says you can’t close your eyes until the bus arrives. I do this all the time in heavy traffic and am able to block out a bit more sensory input.
If money is not an issue for you, consider also the following:
- Get a membership for an airport lounge. The quiet, calm atmosphere can make a huge difference when you have a layover of several hours.
- Take private transportation (Uber, Lyft, local driver companies) rather than crowded public metros or buses.
- Order food to your room (I don’t order a meal to my hotel room very often since it can be more costly — but sometimes, when I’m really drained, it’s been helpful).
I recognize that these latter suggestions might not offer you the “real” experience that many world travelers are seeking in the authentic cultural spaces of the world. However, I do not primarily travel as a tourist, and I am ok with foregoing some of these experiences.
Inadequate Processing Time
The previous section dealt with things to avoid and things to try to limit your sensory overload. In this section, we’ll talk about how those who are traveling as an HSP can get still sufficient processing time to actually enjoy the trip.
As a Highly Sensitive Person, science has strong data suggesting that we need a longer time to process new information, and we process it more elaborately. Some might even say we process information more effectively. In one study, a depression intervention program was initiated for 11-year old girls in a poor London neighborhood. Researchers had observed that many at-risk girls become depressed at age 12, so they implemented a barrage of tactics to help prevent this emotional plunge.
Before starting, each girl was tested to see how she ranked on the HSP scale. One year later, after the girls had gone through the intervention program, they were tested again for HSP scores and for depression levels. Not surprisingly, depression had been reduced only in the girls who scored in the top one-third most highly sensitive. The low-scoring or non-HSP girls were not helped at all. Dr. Elaine Aron analyzes the results by writing,
This is another example of how HSPs pick up especially well on good things, probably in this case by processing the program’s information deeply. This gives us real hope that an intervention can help us if we need it, even more than it would help others.Dr. Elaine Aron
How a Traveling HSP Can Get Downtime to Process
With that said, we know we need to have more time to process information. Furthermore, if we’ll be traveling and experiencing new things, HSP’s need to plan chunks of time that we can be alone in a quiet place to properly absorb, sort, and process everything on our trip. If we don’t have this, we can easily become frustrated, overwhelmed, and cranky. If you plan extensive traveling as an HSP, do not try to ignore this important principle.
My husband has the exploratory energy of two men, but I have the travel urge of a church mouse. We’ve found a happy medium of alternating chunks of time for exploring and relaxing. Sometimes, when I have my downtime, he slips in extra work calls or meets up with one of his contacts.
My favorite vacation was when we spent a week in Sharm El-Sheikh this year, alternating half days of reading quietly by the ocean and half days snorkeling and exploring. I rarely have that much downtime while traveling, but as an HSP, this was a superb balance. At a minimum, I need to have an hour per day to myself to read, journal, process, pray, or let my mind just be still (never underestimate how much your mind can put in file cabinets in those moments while you’re doing nothing).
In order to have adequate processing time while traveling, what you really want to do is to limit the amount of decisions you have to make while on the trip. This will free your mind to be able to enjoy the moment rather than be figuring out answers that you already know will take you longer than most people. You might try the following:
- Don’t pack clothes, pack outfits. Hopefully, you’ll have somewhat of an idea as to what you’ll be doing on your trip when you pack your clothes. I like to pack entire outfits, rolled up and secured with a rubber band. This way, I almost don’t have to think when I get ready in the morning.
- Travel light, but not too light. I’m a moderate minimalist, meaning I have far less than most Americans and I live in a much smaller space (550 square feet), but I’m not as extreme as some. Here’s the thing for HSP’s: when you travel, you’ve already got so many things to process, like how to buy the metro ticket when it’s spitting your coins out and you’ve already run out of bills. You’ve got to process directions, menus, and itineraries. You don’t want to be worrying about how to find a tissue to blow your nose. My husband and I both have Swissgear backpacks that I think are an older version of this one. It’s comfortable and has tons of pockets. Without being too loaded down, I know I have what I need to be comfortable and won’t have to think about the basics.
- When applicable, get travel cards. You might pay a little more for it, but it’s totally worth it to have a card that grants you universal access to city transportation. I find that one of the most mentally-absorbing things is to figure out how to get from point A to point B in a completely unfamiliar setting. Check ahead to see if your destination has some kind of universal travel pass and if it will be worth your money.
- Avoid overcommitting. Plan your activities ahead of time so you can budget enough chunks of downtime. If you’re traveling with a free spirit who feels boxed in by too much planning, agree to alternate periods of planning with periods of freedom. You might try half days, full days, or if you’re destination-hopping, go freestyle for a few days in one destination and structured for a few days at the next. As an HSP, knowing that you will have your rescue timeout in a few hours or a couple days will help you power through an intense traveling schedule.
- Travel with tour groups. I’ve only gone with a tour group twice, and it was just a bus caravan day trip that did not include tour guides giving any sort of useful advice. My husband and I thought it was cramping and quite restrictive. However, in theory, a proper tour group should work very well for an HSP. Imagine having a grandfatherly tour guide who feeds you all the information you need, tells you when it’s time to go, and works out all your meal and lodging details for you. What a dream. Then you can focus all your mental energies on the actual sights and cultural features of what you came to see. However, I speak in theory, because I’ve never actually been on an overnight guided trip (if you’re an HSP and have been, leave me a comment below).
Basic Needs Met Insufficiently
As we’ve discussed, the three main things that can cause overwhelm for HSP’s while traveling is:
- Overload of sensory input
- Inadequate processing time
- Basic needs met insufficiently
In this section, let’s just cover a few basic details about the tired, hangry HSP. 😤
Fact 1: HSP’s aren’t very nice travel buddies when they feel overstimulated.
Fact 2: HSP’s aren’t very nice travel buddies when they’re hungry.
Fact 3: HSP’s aren’t very nice travel buddies when they don’t sleep enough or sleep well enough.
Fact 4: HSP’s aren’t very nice travel buddies when they can’t find a bathroom for too long.
Fact 5: HSP’s aren’t very nice travel buddies when they’re experiencing pain (for whatever reason).
In short, traveling with an HSP is quite a bit like traveling with a toddler, except that we don’t need anyone to carry us.
With that said, let me add some balance to the picture. I’m not all doom-and-gloom and self-depreciating about being HSP. Actually, being the first one to pick up on natural human needs can come in handy. We are often good barometers for the needs of the group.
When my husband goes on lengthy work trips without me, it used to be fairly common that he would get sick, but when I traveled with him, he would be just fine.
When he traveled without his HSP wife, he would work far too late into the night, eat unsanitary street food (to save time and money), push himself too hard, and generally not have any downtime. Getting sick was his body’s way of forcing him to slow down. If I traveled with him, however, he would naturally slow himself down to match my pace, and thus avoided getting sick.
Don’t let anybody tell you that you’re too sensitive because you can’t keep up with the crowd. You and I, we know what we need, and we’ll live longer because of it. And maybe, our loved ones will live longer, too.
How a Traveling HSP Can Always Have Basic Needs Met
Making sure your basic needs are met while traveling — even when on a trip with higher-stamina travel partners — is definitely possible.
- Carry a few snacks in your backpack to avoid getting hangry.
- If you know public restrooms will be limited, carry tissues or drink less water.
- Prioritize getting a good night of sleep so that you’ll have energy the next day.
- Learn how to cope in unusual situations: how to hand-wash your clothes in a public restroom and dry with the hand dryers; how to make blister bandages from whatever you have handy; how to turn a scarf into a hat or a bag or whatever you need it to be. Be creative with what you have.
- Know how to use activated charcoal so that you can avoid waterborne and food-related sicknesses while traveling. This is my go-to natural remedy of choice for stomach bugs. I always take it with me while traveling to unfamiliar places.
- Learn how to ASK your traveling partner/s for what you need. Don’t assume they can read your biological needs, and don’t assume they’ll hate you for needing rest/food sooner than they do.
If we can avoid an overload of sensory input, have adequate processing time, and have basic needs met sufficiently, HSP’s do make excellent travel companions. We tend to be particularly engaged and enthusiastic about what we see, and can have excellent memories as we absorb facts and details about each place.
If you’re a solo traveler and HSP, much of what I have written about negotiating compromise with a more energetic partner will not apply to you. In that event, you might find it even more enjoyable to travel completely on your own terms. May your high sensitivity serve you well!
But for the HSP who is traveling with others, it will always be a bit of a process to find the balance. With due consideration, you can work out a travel style that allows you to thrive as an HSP while seeing the world.
Best wishes on your journey,