How to take breaks at social gatherings without offending people

I’ve always been very sensitive. When I was a little girl, my teachers wrote “extremely sensitive” on my report cards because I cried easily. They had their theories: I was too coddled by my parents, I had low self-esteem, or I was simply emotionally sensitive.

As I got older, I started becoming more sensitive to other things. I would get lightheaded and even dizzy if there were too many people around me or if the noises were too loud. Strong scents would also make me feel lightheaded and nauseated. I would feel faint in temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that my childhood doctor diagnosed me as having a “sensitive system.” All I knew was that my body couldn’t handle certain things—such as caffeine or strong medications—and that my doctor said it was perfectly normal. Normal? That was the last thing I felt. It wasn’t until three years ago that that the proper term was introduced to me: I’m a highly sensitive person.

What does it mean to be a highly sensitive person (HSP)?

The term highly sensitive person doesn’t refer to being simply emotionally sensitive. According to Dr. Elaine Aron, who first coined the term “high sensitive person,” HSPs have “a sensitive nervous system, are aware of subtleties in our surroundings, and are more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment.” Caffeine, loud noises, extreme temperatures, certain scents, and some medications are all possible triggers for us.

I always thought I was the only one, but it turns out there are many of us out there. It’s estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the population are HSP. That means that 1 in 5 people have this same trait from birth. It isn’t only an introvert characteristic either; around 30 percent of HSPs are extroverts. Being a HSP doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you. It simply means that you feel things more intensely than others. You may be more quickly overwhelmed by chaotic environments, sure, but you also may be more deeply aware of subtleties in fine art and music.

If you think you may be a HSP, there’s a self-test created by Dr. Aron that you can take online. If it turns out that you are a HSP and are already dreading socially-active events coming up, here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned that have helped me in frenetic, high-energy environments.

01. Know what your triggers are.

Learn how to avoid things that trigger you and accept them. Do violent, gory scenes make you feel physically sick or faint? Avoid them. Do loud noises make you uncomfortably anxious? Lower the volume if possible or avoid being in places where you know you’ll be exposed to them. It’s okay if you need to physically remove yourself from a situation in which you know you will get emotionally—or even physically—exhausted from all the stimulation. It’s perfectly normal for you to not be able to tolerate what others seemingly do, and vice versa. But it’s your responsibility to identify and respond to your triggers in productive ways.

02. Create a plan that suits your needs.

What if you can’t escape the overstimulation? Create a plan that best suits your needs. For example, I’m a social introvert who is also a HSP. This means that I crave social interaction in small groups and small doses, but I also know my triggers and limits. After a couple of rides at Disneyland with a friend, I need my break from the ruckus in one of the quieter places in the park. Thankfully, many theme parks and other public places have designated areas for people who get overstimulated. Do your research before going to any of these places. Some websites talk about guest accommodations, but if you don’t see anything explained, there is usually a phone number or email address to contact someone with your questions. Don’t be afraid to ask.

What if it’s a more private setting, such as a house party or a family reunion that you can’t escape? There’s only so many “bathroom breaks” you can take; so look for a quieter area of the house or go outside for some fresh air until you feel ready to rejoin the party.

Find a place where you take as many breaks as necessary if you know you’ll be there for a set amount of time. This doesn’t mean that you’re being anti-social; it means that you’re aware of your limitation and are taking care of yourself, so you’ll be even more present for the next conversation.

03. Find allies.

If you can’t find a place to take a break, talk to someone you trust. Letting the host or a good friend know that you may need a break or that you may have to leave early can help you tremendously, even if just mentally. Your family and friends are sometimes the best allies during these situations. They may know of places where you can take a break, or they can even create an excuse for you to leave while you recharge. I’ve had friends call me, giving me an excuse to physically remove myself from an area where there was too much noise and too many people, allowing me time to decompress and breathe before rejoining the group.

Being a HSP isn’t always easy, but it doesn’t have to keep you from living the life you want. If you’re already overstimulated, remember that it’s perfectly fine to skip the activity that you know will trigger more fatigue. If you feel like leaving early and you’re able to, there’s no reason to feel guilty for doing it. If you need to take a break, take it. Self-care is a necessary part of life for everyone, and it will help you survive these high-energy environments without missing out on the fun.