A Sensitive Girl's Guide to Winter Comfort
I’ve talked before about being a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). When I was younger, I would have hated anyone calling me sensitive, but I’ve finally realized I can’t deny it and I can’t help it either. Instead of taking it as an insult, I just take it as a statement of fact. I’m sensitive in many ways, not because I want to be difficult or be a Diva, but because that’s how my system is wired. I’d change it if I could, but I can’t, so I have learned to deal with it.
If you are an HSP, then you react to stimuli that most people wouldn’t even notice. It might be sounds, light, physical textures, tastes, smells, or energy. Jenn Granneman has a good, short introduction here at Highly Sensitive Refuge if you want to check it out. HSPs aren’t crazy or difficult. They simply have more finely tuned nervous systems that pick up on things others don’t.
HSP nervous systems not only notice more but also have a harder time filtering out unnecessary information. For example, I always had a really hard time having conversations with people in restaurants or crowded spaces and I absolutely hated weddings with loud bands. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I realized that not everyone has the same issue. Yes, they still have to yell over all the noise, but they seem to be able to manage just fine. I finally figured out that I have trouble filtering out background noise. I have better hearing than average, but the biggest problem is that my brain can’t distinguish between the conversation near me and the conversation happening two tables away and the music playing in the background. It takes concentration for me to focus on what is going on in my immediate vicinity and ignore what is going on everywhere else. Frankly, it’s exhausting.
Which is why HSPs can get overwhelmed easily. If your brain can’t filter out the sensations from background noise, the itchy shirt you wore today, and irritatingly bright blue lights, then you have to spend mental and physical energy choosing not to be distracted by those things.
If this sounds crazy to you, then you probably aren’t an HSP. If this makes total sense, welcome to the club!
It's also important to note that every HSP is different. Of all the possible sensitivities in the world, each person gets their own blend of serious, minor, and in between. Some sensitivities are very noticeable (you hate bright lights) while others are hard to pick up on (you can’t handle artificial food dye). They don’t always make sense and they aren’t even always consistent. As you mix and match various levels of inputs, sometimes you can deal with more noise while other times you can’t. It depends completely on what else is irritating you at the moment and how much energy you are putting into dealing with all the stimuli. This is why every list of “X ways to tell if you are an HSP” will have several items that fit you exactly and several that don’t.
Some people seem to glide through life being happy and comfortable all the time with whatever they encounter. HSPs are generally not like this. Again, this is not a moral or personal failing, it’s simply the result of a body that feels and notices and has to deal with much more than the average person. HSPs can be just as happy and relaxed as anyone else, it just takes more thought and care to create an environment where that happens.
Which brings me to winter. If you are an HSP who is sensitive to cold and you live anywhere but the tropics, then winter can be a long and uncomfortable season for you. Not just because you are cold (which you probably are most of the time) but also because you likely get hot so darn quickly!
See, this is what is hard about being a temperature sensitive HSP. The temperature range where you are comfortable is pretty small. You might be freezing at 70 degrees but sweating bullets at 80 degrees. Your sweet spot is small, and oh so hard to hit.
You pile the blankets on the bed and crawl in. It takes an hour to fall asleep because you can’t get warm. Then an hour after that you wake up and throw off half your covers because you are blazing hot.
You bundle up to go take a walk outside, shiver for the first ten minutes (wondering why you are even doing this) and then 10 minutes later you are sweating through your first three layers of wool and fleece.
You are at your desk working and feel totally fine (For once! Let’s celebrate!) but two minutes after the heater turns off you are shivering and can’t focus on your work anymore.
You light the fire to get cozy and at some point realize that you're so hot you might just pass out.
I could go on, but you don’t need to know more about my personal issues. (Yes, these are all true.) Again, every HSP is different so these examples might not fit you. Maybe you just get cold easily. Or maybe it’s hard to get cold but once you are it's really hard to get warm again. Being aware of your particular flavor of temperature sensitivity can go a long way toward managing your comfort.
Sometimes I feel like winter is just one long experience of being uncomfortable. Honestly, I’m happiest in bed where it’s warm. (Until it is too warm and then I’m happiest taking a walk to get a drink.) In an attempt to be more positive about the season, I’ve taken to noticing and celebrating whenever I feel comfortable. (I’m completely warm! Yay!) If nothing else, it proves to me that comfort is possible in this sensitive body I’ve been given.
Which makes me wonder, is sensitivity something that can heal? Can I become less sensitive? I really have no idea. Thus far on my journey, I have healed my food sensitivities. I still easily react to food, and I have to be careful, but I’m so much better than I was. Can I heal my temperature sensitivities in a similar way? Honestly, I have no idea. It’s something I’ll have to explore. Maybe I can teach my nervous system to be less reactive. Maybe I can sooth enough of my sensitivities so that the others aren’t so noticeable.
Until then, how does one with such finely tuned temperature needs get through winter? By learning lots of tricks to deal with whatever you are feeling at the moment.
Yes, it is exhausting. But it can be done, and it can make winter more comfortable, particularly if you live with other people who have their own needs and can’t keep the thermostat set to your exact preference. (Not that it would solve all your problems anyway.)
So here are my top tips for dealing with temperature sensitivity. Read through and see what might work for you. Remember, we are all different. Some things that make a huge difference for me may not do a darn thing for you. Experiment and pick what feels good to you.
First of all, know that every day may not be the same. Just because something worked yesterday does not mean it will work today. You are sensitive to external stimuli. That means that you can react to even tiny changes in your environment. Be ready to adjust at any time to whatever you feel at the moment.
Which brings us to layers: Options to change layers throughout the day are a must. You will feel different from hour to hour and you will need to make changes. I used to always keep an extra sweater at work to throw on as needed. At home I can change clothes two or three times a day depending on what I am doing. If you are going somewhere, take some extra options. I used to be so mystified at those people who travel for a month with two pairs of pants, three t-shirts, and a sweatshirt until I realized that they aren’t HSPs. Those of us with temperature issues need a wide range of options available at all times (not just the winter). Give in, accept your needs, and pack extra stuff.
Moisture control. I can work all day with freezing cold feet and go home and find my socks are damp from sweat. I have no idea why my body does this, but it’s annoying. The good news is that changing my socks always helps considerably (which is why I always have extra socks with my extra layers). If I take a walk outdoors, I change as soon as I get home into a dry shirt. On the opposite end of things, dry air can feel colder, so on particularly cold days running a humidifier where I am working can make me feel warmer. Your moisture issues may be different, so notice when things seem dry or damp and adjust as necessary.
Notice your cold time of day. By 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon I’m almost always freezing no matter what I’ve been doing. For some reason this is my cold time. (I’m usually hungry too, so maybe the two are connected?) I manage this in one of two ways. I can get active and warm up or I can grab a blanket or settle under covers for a while. Ignoring the cold never works (I’ve tried many times). I just end up with cold ankles that never get warm. Now I just know to expect it and plan for the late afternoon cold slump. One way or another I get through. If you have a consistent time of day that is hard, strategize to stay as warm as possible during that time.
Winter clothing. I’m not just talking about long sleeve shirts and pants here. I’m talking about a serious set of winter gear. Those cotton socks I wear in summer never leave the drawer between December and April. They just don’t cut it. Here are my favorite game changing clothing items: Anything made from wool or down. Knee high socks. Camisoles (under two or three layers of tops). Lined pants (Sherpa lined sweats are a must for walking outdoors!). Down jacket that goes almost to my knees (weird for walking but seriously warm). Long fleece tops that cover my butt and my neck. Down or sheepskin slippers.
Winter bedding. Falling asleep is nearly impossible if you are cold. The best thing I ever bought with birthday money was a bed warmer. It pumps heated water through my bed and the adjustable thermostat can meet my changing needs. I turn that baby on, go get ready for bed, and by the time I slip between the covers it is pure bliss. I also have a number of wool and down blankets and throws I can pull on and off as needed (I can get overheated if I’m not sleeping soundly). If you can afford those kinds of luxury items, then I highly recommend them. If you need to go cheap, a $20 hot water bottle can still do the trick or a small heating pad. These are also good for other times, like when your feet are terribly cold and won’t warm up.
Know your weak spots. If you’ve been paying attention thus far, you’ve probably picked up that my ankles are one of my weak spots. The other is my torso. I cannot let the tiniest breath of cool air touch those spots or I’ll be miserable. That’s why knee-high socks and high-top slippers do wonders for me. It’s also why my winter wardrobe is packed with camisoles and undershirts I can tuck in along with long fleece tops that cover me all the way past my butt. If I can keep those two sensitive spots warm, I have a much better possibility of keeping myself comfortable throughout the day. Learn your own weak spots and prioritize solutions that keep them warm and you’ll feel better overall.
Be active. In the winter I try to exercise twice a day. For me, exercise means getting warm enough to sweat. It’s terrible for my laundry (because then I have to get out of the wet clothes, pronto) but it’s great for staying warm. I may get overheated quickly, but I don’t stay there long and the warm glow lasts for quite a long time. If I can make myself do some yoga or something late in the evening, that helps keep me warm until bedtime. If you don’t want to do an exercise routine, then strategically plan when to clean the house, do laundry, move those boxes around, or whatever physical activity you need to do to make the most of that heat you build up.
Eat for warmth. I love a good salad, but sometimes in winter it is simply too cold to be satisfying. There is a reason we crave soup and pot roast in winter (assuming you eat meat, of course). If you get cold in the middle of the day, try to eat a warm meal for lunch. If you have an afternoon slump, like me, have some hot chocolate before you leave work. I used to love my morning cup of tea in the cold car on the way to school. (Of course, sometimes I’d get so hot that I’d start to sweat. You can’t always win with these things.) Pay attention to what you eat that makes you warm up and use that strategically.
Throw blankets. On the couch, in the kitchen, at work, by your desk, in the car. Collect them like they are your retirement fund and keep them everywhere. You never know when the need for one will strike.
If it sounds like I’m crazy, I’m not. I’m just an HSP who has learned to deal with my sensitive nervous system the best I can. I mean, I could do what everyone else does and end up grumpy all the time because I’m uncomfortable. However, I prefer to be proactive and do what works for me. The less energy I have to put into being warm or dealing with discomfort, the more energy I have to be happy with my life.
There’s a lot of things here for you to experiment with! Check out whatever you already do, then select a few more to try out. Some will change your life, and some won't. Take what works and dump the rest. You can be more comfortable throughout the winter if you find what works for you!
If you want to read my other posts about being an HSP, check out A Sensitive Girl’s Guide to Travel and A Sensitive Girl’s Guide to Holiday Gatherings.
If there’s something here that strikes you, or if you have a suggestion to add to the list, send me a message! I'd love to hear your experience being an HSP! You can contact me through my website or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Keep in touch and stay warm!