Surviving the Sensory Onslaught of the Holidays

Today I want to talk about the sensory mess that is the holiday season. 

I love the Christmas season, I really do.  In cold weather, under early darkness, and especially with some cold rain or sleet (we don’t usually get snow here in Louisiana), it feels right to be out shopping among crowds of people with Christmas music blaring from every direction.  But even so, it can all be a bit much.  It’s noise, and people, and fake cinnamon and pine smells, and extra lights, and foods you never eat the rest of the year.  It can easily get overwhelming, so I’d like to share my tips for surviving the sensory onslaught of the holidays.

You Don’t Have to Be a Hermit

I understand how tempting it can be to just shut yourself away this time of year and try to ignore the world until after New Year’s.  Lots of people refuse to go out in all the Christmas shopping crowds, instead opting to shop entirely online, which isn’t the worst idea.  But this is the one time of year when people will actively hound you about “nobody should be alone at the holidays” and other such ideas.

I promise, these people mean well.  Really.

And I promise, there are ways to enjoy the season without being a hermit.

Keep A Sanctuary

The key to not being a total hermit throughout the holiday season is to make yourself a part-time hermitage. 

No, really.

Create a sanctuary for yourself that is ONLY YOUR SPACE where you can control what sensory input and what holiday influence is allowed in. 

For me, this is my car.  I don’t generally take passengers, so it’s just for me.  There is NO Christmas music allowed unless I’m craving it (and then it’s silly stuff like “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” or “The Chipmunk Song” or maybe a little Twisted Sister).  I never have smelly stuff in my car, so there’s no fake pine or overly sweet cinnamon smells to give me headaches.  Sometimes I’ll just go driving for a while, enjoying my own little bubble of space in the midst of everything going on around me.

When You Must Go Out…

Headphones are a great way to shield yourself from the noise of crowds and the constant barrage of holiday music.  You can listen to a favorite podcast, your chosen music, or just use noise-canceling headphones to block out the world.  As an added bonus, people are less likely to try to talk to you when you’re wearing headphones!

If you choose to shop in person rather than online, remember that there are times when there will be fewer people out shopping.  Earlier in December is better than later, as you avoid the crazy last-minute people.  Getting out during the business day instead of the evening will help you dodge the biggest crowds.  Of course, if you shop anywhere that’s open 24 hours, about 3:00 in the morning is usually a dead spot (except maybe on Black Friday).

While you’re out, stay away from “smelly stores” – I don’t mean stores that stink, I mean stores that sell lots of scented things.  Bath and Body Works, Yankee Candle, and similar places can assault your sense of smell without your even stepping inside sometimes, so give them a wide berth and save yourself a possible migraine.  Also remember that craft stores and Christmas sections of other stores tend to have scented stuff, especially cinnamon-scented pinecones (I don’t know why, but they’re always there) and lots of candles that smell like food.  Be on your guard and detour around those aisles without shame!

About Food

Now that I’ve talked about shopping, let’s talk about all that food.  There are dishes that show up on holiday tables that nobody likes but “it wouldn’t be Christmas without it”.  Not to mention all the treats that may appear in your workplace or at school parties that you don’t normally eat.  If you have any food aversions at all – from “I don’t eat eggs or sushi” to “I only eat five foods” – this can be a minefield!

At work, you can usually deflect people pushing food on you with any of a few techniques.  If a simple “No, thank you” doesn’t work, try saying something like “Oh, wow, they look great, but I’m trying to avoid sugar” or “Thanks, but I’ve already had way too many treats at home this week”.  If they won’t back off, just go ahead and take one – wrap it up in a napkin and tell them “I’ll save it for dessert tonight” or something like it.  You don’t have to eat it.

Family parties and holiday meals are a little touchier but remember that you’re allowed to set boundaries.  Repeat after me:


That said, weigh taking one bite against how your family will react if you don’t.  If they’re unreasonable and one bite won’t make you gag, maybe it’s worth swallowing one spoonful.  Don’t forget that you can always put a tablespoon of something on your plate and pretend to eat it if it’s that big a deal. 

Another tactic is to fill your plate with food you know you like first.  Then when people press you about taking a helping of something you don’t like, you can say something about “I’ll get that on the next round” or “I couldn’t eat another bite” or something similar.

When in doubt – or if you just know that your family isn’t going to be considerate of you – bring your own food.  You deserve to eat with everyone else without being pressured or forced into choking down food you can’t handle.  Be proactive and be cheerful about it – “It’s no problem, I’m covered” – and hopefully it won’t escalate beyond that.  People with food allergies, gluten sensitivity, and chronic illnesses often have to do the same thing.

Find Ways to Recharge

In between all those shopping excursions, school concerts, parties, and cookie/gift exchanges, you’re going to need to pull back and recharge.  Depending on your needs and your favorite things, this could take a few different forms.

I am highly treat-motivated, myself.  When I’ve been out doing something stressful, some kind of food or drink that I don’t get every day helps a lot.  If you prefer treats, a Pumpkin Spice Latte or a Peppermint Mocha can be a nice quiet moment in the holiday hustle.  Maybe your favorite part of Christmas is candy canes – get a box of them and grab one any time you need to remember what’s good about the season.  Sweet or savory, cookies or a favorite soup, it doesn’t matter what it is if it helps you recuperate from the stress.

As treat-motivated as I am, sometimes I just need to go hide in my nest away from everything.  If you need sensory deprivation after being out amid all the Christmas craziness, that’s fine!  Take a hot bath, get under a weighted blanket (I love mine!), or just sit in the dark and quiet.  A little sensory deprivation can be a great relief after the sensory overload we get at this time of year and I don’t think anyone will give you crap if you say you want to go home and curl up with a cup of tea in the middle of winter.

The holiday season is a sensory onslaught, no doubt, but you don’t have to hide from it.  Take care of yourself and keep your own batteries charged so that you can enjoy the holidays with your friends and family.

Surviving the Sensory Onslaught of the Holidays

How do you handle holiday stress?  What are your best tips for surviving family holiday meals?  Do you keep a sanctuary space where the holidays don’t get to intrude? 

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