Navigating Sensory Sensitivities Over Thanksgiving


Autumn deepens, and Thanksgiving approaches, preceded by recipes for turkey, stuffing, traditional sides, and less traditional alternatives, reminders to be grateful, or questions about what we are grateful for.

If you are among those who feel increased stress (with or without accompanying increased joy) as turkey day draws near, this is for you, from the perspective of one highly sensitive mama and her whole, varied, sensitive family.

Let’s make this Thanksgiving less stressful and more joyful for everyone.

First, let’s take a minute, if you are able, to just take a deep breath. Breathe in through your nose, fill your belly first, and then your lungs. Hold it for a couple seconds. Then slowly release all the air out through your mouth. Repeat that sequence a couple times and notice when you are feeling more centered in your body. Now, from that centered place, let’s talk about sensory sensitivities, how they can increase stress, and some possible ways to mitigate them at Thanksgiving. 

  1. Moving stuff around the house: From putting up festive decorations, to making the table longer to accommodate more seating, items both small and large frequently get moved around around Thanksgiving. For some people with sensory sensitivities, this can lead quickly to overwhelm and dysregulation. If you think (or know) this is true for you or your loved ones, consider having a conversation about what is really important, and what can be left the same. Perhaps changing things slowly, or knowing when things will change, can help everyone prepare and feel better. Perhaps there are some things that cause more upset than others. Collaborating together to find solutions that work for everyone before everything moves can go a long way to making this Thanksgiving happier. 
  2. Lots of different aromas: Pumpkin spice might be nice for lots of people, but for those with hyperosmia (sensitivity to smells), it can make everything overwhelming, causing emotional upset. If this applies to you or your loved ones, think of alternatives to all the heavy smells around Thanksgiving… unscented candles, open windows, and even grilling outdoors instead of cooking inside can help mitigate the challenges posed by these aversions.
  3. Lots of extra people: Whether it’s discomfort with the relationship dynamics, personality traits, or simply the overwhelming amount of sensory input from a crowd, having extra people in your home (which should be your safe space) at Thanksgiving can be hard. If you or your loved one struggle with this, it may be helpful to designate a quiet room in the house where anyone can go to get a break. Noise-canceling headphones or earbuds may also be useful to reduce ambient sound. A pod or egg chair with or without a weighted blanket, headphones, and a great book can create space for someone even in the middle of a crowded room. Talk together ahead of time to let others know about the accommodations being made, and what to do if someone doesn’t heed them.
  4. Schedules that are (largely) abandoned: Many of us thrive on routine, whether we like it or not, and the changes to schedules that are made during the holiday season can throw us all off our game (even if we don’t recognize it). If you know you or your loved one has a harder time when routines are cast aside, take a minute to think about the things that make the most difference and hold on to those. It could be that keeping a regular bedtime and wake up schedule makes the rest of the day go more smoothly. It could be that eating meals at the usual times to fend off the inevitable “hangry” complications. Finding touchpoints with normal routines, talking through changes, and collaborating on problem-solving expected (or unexpected) snags can help make the Thanksgiving chaos a bit more bearable.
  5. Food that is not the usual, safe, food: Holiday menus include lots of food we don’t typically consume. For those with aversions to textures, tastes, and smells, this can cause a host of difficulties. If you or your loved one experiences food aversions, it may be time to incorporate safe foods into your Thanksgiving menu. There is nothing sacred about sweet potato casserole, and chicken nuggets can be enjoyed by everyone.
  6. Sitting at a table: Neurodiverse individuals may have a difficult time sitting at a table for many reasons, including eye contact, physical space, and more. Sitting close together also allows a person to hear the mouth noises of those around them as everyone chews, which can literally incite rage in someone with misophonia. And while sitting around a table at Thanksgiving may be a major stressor, sitting alone in a different space can feel ostracizing. If you or your loved ones feel overwhelmed sitting at a table, think about whether it is really a requirement for a joy-filled gathering. Maybe the meal becomes a buffet and everyone can sit wherever they are comfortable… Maybe you can play some piano music in the background to help mask chewing noises. 

With any of these, it is important to remember that most people do not immediately identify the root of what is going on to cause their dysregulation. Staying open and curious (rather than judging ourselves or those around us for big emotions or behaviors) can slow us down and help us to be good detectives, get to the heart of the issue, and collaborate with our loved ones to find solutions which work for everyone. New traditions can help everyone feel included. Working together and thinking outside the box can make this Thanksgiving more joyful for all.

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