Managing Sensory Challenges Through the Festive Season

By: Emily Bemmer

Christmas is a time for gathering together family and friends, enjoying delicious food, and celebrating both the traditions and spontaneity that come with the holidays.

However, for both children and adults who experience different sensory sensitivities, Christmas can quickly become an uncomfortable or overwhelming time. People can be hypersensitive to sensory inputs; bright lights, too many or loud noises, strong smells and taste aversions, or from increased physical touch. Especially with COVID restrictions in the last few years, the 2020s have meant less exposure to large groups, unpleasant sounds, and an increased capacity to control one’s environment (with work and study from home). This can make Christmas a more difficult time, not only for those with sensory sensitivities, but also for those who experience anxiety, or find extended social activities difficult.

While we may not always be fully aware of those around us who have sensory sensitivities, there are various ways to make Christmas gatherings sensory-friendly for everyone; (From The Centre for Effective Living.)

  1. A quiet space– ensure people are aware of quieter spaces they can retreat to if Christmas events start to become over-stimulating; such as an outdoor space, or a quiet room to sit and recharge.
  2. Stretch it out – Try to spread out Christmas activities over multiple days and with clear breaks within and between days for down time, instead of a single jam-packed day with multiple environments, people and situations to adjust to.
  3. Accept ‘no’ – Even if you’re sure they’ll love a certain tasty food, fun activity or new song, allow others to say no to your requests and engage with Christmas in the ways they’re most comfortable.
  4. Tell someone– if you, your child, or someone you know has clear triggers or sensitivities, it can be helpful to let a host know beforehand, just as you would if you had an allergy.

Here’s a few more ideas:

Use Noise-Canceling Headphones: Noise-canceling headphones can help reduce auditory stimuli in crowded or noisy environments, such as holiday parties or shopping centres.

Plan Quiet Activities: Incorporate low-key activities into your holiday plans, such as reading a book, doing a puzzle, or watching a favorite movie.

Practice Mindfulness: Teach mindfulness or relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation, to help manage stress and anxiety related to sensory challenges.
Prepare for Events: If attending events, prepare in advance by knowing the schedule, the nature of the activities, and planning breaks to regroup and relax.

Choose Sensory-Friendly Gifts: When selecting gifts, consider items that are sensory-friendly, such as stress balls, fidget toys, or items with varied textures.

Limit Crowded Spaces: If possible, choose less crowded times to attend events or shop. Some places may offer special hours for individuals with sensory sensitivities.

Have an Exit Plan: Always have an exit plan in case the sensory environment becomes too overwhelming. Knowing there’s a way to leave a situation can reduce anxiety.

Remember that everyone’s sensory challenges are unique, so it’s essential to tailor coping strategies to individual needs.

Article supplied with thanks to The Centre for Effective Living.

Feature image: Photo by lasse bergqvist on Unsplash 

About the Author: Emily Bemmer is a psychologist who works in the areas of depression, anxiety, emotional regulation, life transitions, social skills, and family dynamics.