How To Thrive During The Holidays As An Empath, According To A Psychiatrist
The holiday season tends to fill calendars with social events and homes with out-of-town guests. But, being "on" for extended periods of time can become emotionally exhausting—particularly for empaths and highly sensitive people who lack the filters to block out stress, and so they absorb it instead.
If you are susceptible to emotional contagion and can actually feel others' emotions, you're not alone. It's been estimated that about 20% of the population is, in fact, made up of highly sensitive people who are particularly vulnerable to other people's stress and emotions. This can result in panic attacks, depression, exhaustion, and a range of physical ailments.
As a psychiatrist, I specialize in treating highly sensitive, empathic patients who tend to be emotional sponges for the stress of the world. So many of them live in a state of chronic sensory overload, which causes physical and emotional symptoms. However, once I teach them the self-care techniques, like the ones in my new book Thriving as an Empath: 365 Days of Self-Care for Sensitive People, they can come into their power without shouldering the stress of others and society.
I've found that one strategy that is particularly effective during the chaotic holiday season is to seek solitude. Carve out time to think and just be without any interruptions. When you are still, your stress hormones can decrease so that they're not ravaging your system and affecting your immunity. From this quieter space, endorphins—your natural painkillers and feel-good hormones—can help you feel more peaceful and even blissful. Quiet time lets you replenish your mind, body, and soul.
Here are some strategies for seeking solitude and replenishing your energy this holiday season:
1. Take a break when you spot the signs of overwhelm.
When you begin to feel victimized by others' negative emotions in your role as helper, caretaker, or confidante, realize that you need to take a break. Spot signs of sensory overload early before they spiral out of control. Some of the signs include irritability, tiredness, and the sense that too much is coming at you too fast—the lights seem too bright, sounds are too loud, and crowds seem way too overwhelming.
2. Remind yourself that it's totally OK to leave a party early.
Social gatherings that require face-to-face communication can be mentally exhausting. Some people thrive in the midst of crowds and conversations, but for empaths, introverts, or the highly sensitive—not so much. Anticipate your need to withdraw and recharge, and honor that need by creating moments of alone time. During parties, I have often found alone time in the bathroom. It is a socially acceptable way to get away from people and take time to regroup. Or, as I do, I tell my hosts that I will be able to stay for only an hour or two so they're informed and don't feel insulted or rejected. That way, I don't feel trapped in an overstimulating situation.
3. Keep up with solo morning routines and practices.
Understand that, as a sensitive person, taking time alone is a self-care skill. While being around people for great lengths of time can deplete your energy, quiet time by yourself fortifies you to be present when you are with others. So this holiday season, make an effort to spend your mornings doing a mindfulness or breathwork practice in a quiet place. Then, you'll be able to better engage with family members and friends throughout the day.
4. Try out some visualization and breathwork exercises.
As an empath, you are an emotional sponge who absorbs the stress of others. This can lead to an emotional hangover unless you take charge and remove yourself to find relief. Make an excuse and retire to an unused room or step outside. In solitude, you can use visualization or breathing to center yourself. For instance, picture divine white light coming down through the crown of your head and darkness flowing out the bottom of your feet. This will keep good energy flowing in and negative energy flowing out of your body. A good breathwork exercise that I recommend is slowly inhaling to a count of six and then exhaling slowing to a count of six, then resting for a count of six. Do three repetitions, and it will relax you.
5. Lean on positive affirmation.
Families can bring a lot of baggage and unresolved arguments, or entrenched divisions can often linger at holiday gatherings. With your highly attuned senses, you are acutely aware of them. Choose to spend time alone and engage in positive self-talk when you feel this stress. Tell yourself, "I am not this emotion. I can center myself and detach from the stress. I can lovingly witness the feelings, but I'm larger than the feelings." This will offer perspective and let you relax.
During this holiday season, give yourself the gift of quiet spaces. You will enjoy your time with friends and family when you've taken time to be alone with your thoughts.
Judith Orloff, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice and a psychiatric clinical faculty member at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books, including, Thriving as an Empath: A Daily Guide to Empower Sensitive People and The Empath’s Empowerment Journal. Judith teaches workshops nationwide, has given a TED talk, and has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Today, PBS, CNN, and NPR. You can learn more about Judith at DrJudithOrloff.com.