12 Tips for Coping with Sensory Overload During the Holidays

By Olivia Pennelle 12/09/16

I have had meltdowns because of too much noise, or too many people talking at the same time. I don’t like parties, crowds, or the demands of the holidays.

A woman in a Santa hat holding her forehead and grimacing
Can't I just hibernate through the whole thing?

I don’t like Christmas. As the holidays approach each year, my anxiety becomes palpable. My senses become extremely overwhelmed. Conversely, I loved it when I was using. I had a false sense of merriment and festive cheer, which, in reality, was just masking my addiction with a seasonal excuse to use more. Today, I feel at the opposite end of that spectrum: I want to go into hibernation and I want it to be over, now. This is common for some people in recovery. However, it is possible to get through the holidays with a few simple tools which calm feelings of sensory overload and keep your recovery on a strong footing.

Stone Cold Sober

In early recovery, we’re often told to closely monitor certain senses. HALT is a popular acronym used as a sort of recovery barometer: asking ourselves are we feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired? Any one of these senses being triggered can lead to a sense of feeling overwhelmed or feeling out of sorts.

Uncomfortable feelings and acute sensory overload are part of my gang. The triggering of feelings and senses are partly why I used: I could not cope with life or how it made me feel.

In early recovery, I felt like someone had poured a bucket of ice cold water over me and ripped back the covers. There was no comfort blanket, no dulled senses. I was stone cold sober and feeling everything. That took quite some getting used to. With such sharp senses and a sensitive sense of self, I have been known to feel so overwhelmed that I feel like I will either implode or explode. I have had to develop adaptable recovery strategies to help me to cope with both discomfort and heightened senses.

Recovery Senses

While I have accepted that as a recovering person I have a predisposition to sensitivity, I am also an empath. All of my life people have called me highly sensitive and touchy. It is only through experiencing these feelings and reactions during recovery that I have gained awareness of my nature. I have had meltdowns because of too much noise, or too many people talking at the same time. I don’t like parties, crowds, or the pressures and demands of the holidays. I am not sure if it is because I am an empath or because I am sensitive as a person in recovery.

Typically, empaths are highly intuitive and acutely sensitive. They sense a general mood in a room on entering; easily sense when someone is lying; have a good sense of what needs to be done without being told; are more sensitive to stimulants and medications; cannot stand crowds which lead to feeling overwhelmed; have a low tolerance for pain; find noise (shouting, loud music, many people talking) painful; often feel fatigued; are highly creative people; frequently have digestive problems; and are very sensitive to sounds and sensory input which can lead to feeling overwhelmed. Empaths need time every day with sensory depletion.

Those characteristics describe me. Added to the sensitive nature of being an addict in recovery, the holidays are tough on my senses:

Sight: bright shiny lights and decorations are everywhere. There is an overwhelming sense of material stuff – in shops, shopping bags, presents in the house, overstocked fridges and cake trays at work;

Sound: Christmas music is blasting out of every shop, bus, mall, supermarket and street;

Smell: The booze is wafting everywhere, clouds of cigarette smoke, aftershave and perfumes and strong smells of cooking all overwhelm my nose;

Taste: Everything is heavily seasoned, overly sweet, and cakes and biscuits are in abundance;

Touch: My skin is dry, my lips cracked and I feel the cold weather. I don’t want to be in close proximity to a lot of people.

There are also the pressures and demands to buy presents and attend celebratory parties, meals and events that I don’t want to go to. All-in-all, for someone in recovery-particularly an empath-this can lead to sensory overload. And I am not alone. Dorri Olds, Freelance Writer and person in long-term recovery says this:

“I don't like to be known as a Scrooge but bah humbug to the damn holidays. It's a time filled with family obligations, work-related parties and I'd rather stay home with my dog. I'm recently single after my spouse relapsed on heroin seven months ago so I'm especially sensitive. I have cravings to drink and drug even though I've been sober a long time now. Seeing and hearing happy-looking couples clinking glasses at restaurants makes my neck and back tense up. Walking around Manhattan this time of year gets stressful because of store sales and crowded streets of tourists bumping into me. At parties the smell of liquor wafts up my nose and pulls me towards it. I often leave parties quickly because of that and because small talk tends to make me feel lonelier. Sometimes it feels so awkward to leave early. I never know whether to try to quietly slip out or go find the host to say goodbye when I know I'll get the big question, "Why are you leaving so soon?" Then I don't know whether to tell the truth or lie about having to be somewhere.”

Tips for coping with sensory overload

This will be my fifth Christmas in recovery. I am confident that I can get through this. During that time, I have built my recovery toolbox around my senses and have found ways and means to soothe myself. Here are some of them:

  1. Sensory depletion. At least once per day I will do something to calm all of my senses. I put in ear plugs, wear and eye mask and lie still. Or I have a candle lit bath in Epsom salts-known to calm your body- and close my eyes.
  2. Restorative or Yin Yoga is great for also calming the nervous system and relaxing the body.
  3. Supplements. I take magnesium and ashwagandha; both are great for providing calm and dealing with symptoms of stress, naturally.
  4. Exercise. I wrap up warm and talk long walks in green spaces.
  5. Avoid cities and towns. It is the worst place for hitting all senses in one sitting.
  6. Shop online. It is stress free, you don’t have to lug heavy bags around, queue in shops or avoid the crowds.
  7. Say no to holiday parties, if you want to, and know that is perfectly okay. If you do go, have an exit plan.
  8. Manage your environment. My home is calm and not too noisy; I have a quiet room to go to if I need time out. I take earphones into the office so that I don’t hear too much noise, and listen to soothing music. I also tell people close to me that I struggle with noise and am sensitive at this time of year.
  9. Find a form of expression or outlet for feelings of anxiety, frustration, and being overwhelmed.
  10. Meditation creates awareness of how your body is feeling. For me, if I feel irritated and intolerant, I need to take a step back and assess what is going on for me. Meditation gives me the space to do that and to determine what my body is trying to tell me.
  11. Take things slowly and one at a time. Act mindfully and try not to do too many things at once.
  12. Express yourself creatively. Often I find that if I don’t create, I feel more sensitive than usual and a bit low in mood. I need to express my creativity regularly. I do this in writing, cooking and developing my website.

Whether you are an empath or highly sensitive, self-care and relaxation are paramount to coping with feelings of sensory overload at any time. But they are particularly important during the holidays. Take some time out for you this year.

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