How Social Media Can Affect Highly Sensitive People

Daily Thoughts

What once was a momentary distraction from our daily lives has become a common escape for many. Many people use their phones during their lunch break or check them throughout their day. The effort to unwind has become a source of overstimulation and a dependency on technology. Social media has many positives including enabling us to maintain connections with friends and family overseas. However, it can also have negative effects from lowered self-esteem, unrealistic perceptions, information overload, and a false sense of connection. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are particularly vulnerable to being exposed and impacted by the digital world. What is seen as a form of escapism and relaxation can be stressful and overwhelming for many HSPs. 

After removing several social media apps including Instagram and Facebook, I felt more peaceful and relaxed and I had time to focus on what was important. As HSPs we tend to be highly sensitive in any of the five senses: sound, light, touch, taste, and smell.  For people with sensory processing sensitivity, the information and forms of entertainment that we choose to watch, read, and listen to can have an impact on our physical and mental health. HSPs have much higher sensory processing, which means there are stronger reactions when seeing others’ emotions or watching a film with violent or dramatic scenes. 

We can experience overstimulation / HSPs notice the small details and being overstimulated can cause feelings of anxiety and a lack of focus. Information overload can lead to cognitive overload, which can be debilitating for HSPs. The ability to focus on a particular task carefully can be experienced when we switch off or put our phone on airplane mode and prioritize what is most present.

When we reduce the apps, news, and time spent on social media and remove non-essential notifications, we can rest our brain and minimize the feeling of being drained. This reduces the sensory input that we are engaging in. The constant interruptions and flows of notifications are a guaranteed way to make you unproductive. During many of our working hours, many jobs require hours of screen-time. A way that HSPs can feel less stimulated is by minimizing their phone use during their private time. 

It triggers our empath side / Imagine watching a film with a violent scene or reading about a tragedy on a news site. The intensity is heightened as the news can bring us down far deeper as there is a sense of helplessness that we can’t solve all these problems. As an HSP, I tend to limit my news consumption as it can be overwhelming at times and I can be brought to tears by an emotional story online. These all impact our mental state during the day and our general state of mind.

Highly Sensitive People have the great power of putting themselves in others’ shoes and truly feeling what they are feeling. This can be a blessing when being there for a loved one, but it can be draining for one’s mental health if there is an overload of problems from the exposure we have to the news and social media. As an HSP I find I intensely pick up on other’s feelings and what they are going through. I feel those emotions profoundly and deeply, and at times it can be all too much. It can be overwhelming. In these moments we need to set boundaries and limit/priorities where we place our attention and who we give it to. 

Comparison is the thief of joy / Most people on platforms such as Instagram often show the highlight reel of their lives. Many Highly Sensitive People are sensitive to other’s feelings. Finding balance in our social media use is important as Social media can often cause us to place focus on other’s lives rather than simply living our own. Adopting the “Joy of Missing Out” can be a great relief to enjoy the activities we normally find stimulating. Highly Sensitive People are wired differently, but the comparison on social media can make it temporarily easy to forget that.

Many HSPs are confident and happy within themselves, and they share and use their sensitivity as a gift in the world. However, there is a potential for self-esteem to lower in someone whose trait is not understood or nurtured. Sensitivity is often associated with weakness in our society when really it is our greatest strength. It’s okay to be sensitive to the content you are viewing online and to act accordingly to minimize the impact.  

Social media can impact our sleep / The first hour of the morning sets the tone for the day and the last hour before sleep is critical for good sleep. By starting the morning off technology-free, you can create a ritual that is relaxing and puts your mind at ease. Checking emails and social media can cause the mind to wander and go into overdrive. With so much going on in the world today on the news, the news can have a negative impact on a highly sensitive person. I found a helpful practice to start or end the day is to meditate. It sets a positive tone for the day, relaxes all the muscles in your body, it slows your breathing, and allows your mind to start fresh and clear.

When HSPs experience good sleep they are able to function at their best. The presence of phones in the bedroom can have a greater effect on our sleep and wellbeing. The blue light emitted by screens can restrict the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle. Scrolling and information processing can cause our brains to stay awake. By limiting your digital consumption during the start and end of the day, you can create a quiet routine to unwind at the end of the day and have a higher sleep quality. 

It can increase stress and anxiety / There is more information flowing into our lives more than ever before. There are interruptions, distractions, and forms of escapism during our day. It seems the days where we wrote letters to each other or talked on the phone have changed into instant messaging and other immediate forms of communication. There is more social pressure to share personal information about our private lives. There is a lack of privacy and pressure from social stress.

The increased awareness of stressful events in other lives may contribute to the increasing stress people have in their own lives. The use of social networking sites can make mental health issues potentially worse. There are ways to minimize the increase of stress and anxiety by limiting the use of social media. Being self-aware of the behaviors and habits we may have, can decrease the chance of becoming addicted or investing too much time into social media. 

Lack of presence and boundaries / It’s in those quiet moments when we’re sitting on the bus or waiting for a friend that we want to have a form of immediate distraction. When we’re scrolling on social media, we’re taken away from the presence. Taking those small moments to stare out the window, read a book or breathe slowly can allow us to stay centered. Social media inserts itself into our daily lives blurring the lines between public and private. The lack of boundaries between work and private life is more prominent.

Many Highly Sensitive People need boundaries to feel safe in any given environment. Social media means that we are accessible at any time of the day, and this can create an added pressure to respond to people in a shorter period. The focus of being online can draw us away from being present in the moment. When we actively seek out activities during the day that bring us back to our presence, we can feel more grounded. Give yourself permission to make clear boundaries and know that it’s okay to attend to things later or say no to an invitation. 

How Can HSPs Manage Social Media Use?
  •  Remove social media apps from your phone
  •  Limit your use of technology each day
  •  Make sure to unplug throughout the day and be conscious of your social media use
  •  Unfollow accounts that don’t align with your values
  • Spend time when on your phone to talk to family and close connections
  • Find media and platforms that work for your individual needs
  • Stay in touch with nature and spend time outdoors
  • Turn your notifications off from apps
  • Taking a digital detox to take a break from your screens
  •  Set a time for how much social media you use
  •  Use apps that help you, such as mindfulness apps or gratitude diaries
  • Focus on the tasks and activities that you enjoy that don’t require a phone
  • Use your smartphone for learning or relaxing, such as reading, listening to a podcast, listening to music, or a guided meditation

For many of us, social media is active in our day-to-day lives. It can enable us to maintain connections with our loved ones and stay up-to-date with the news. With anything, it requires balance and moderation to maintain our sense of wellbeing. Its addictive nature and information overload can be especially overwhelming. For HSP, social media in moderate to high dosages can be overstimulating, energy draining, and even cause stress and anxiety. By incorporating more self-care practices and daily activities offline, it can make you feel calmer and more present to experience the day ahead.

What’s your experience with Social Media like as an HSP?

Photography by Leslie Zhang

The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People

Books

Humans are wired to connect and to have authentic conversations. Being sensitive, empathetic and vulnerable are traits that allow us to truly connect with people. A highly sensitive person (HSP) experiences the world through a heightened way through high sensory experiences. This may be through crowded places, strong scents or loud noises. It is said by the clinical psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron that 15-20% of the population are HSPs. HSPs process and feel emotions more deeply than others and they are highly empathic and tend to have rich inner lives. The emotions they may feel are very deep whether that may be positive or negative.

Growing up as a classical musician, I was deeply moved by music during a performance, a painting in an art gallery, reading a book or watching a movie. Taking actions such as surrounding myself in nature, sitting at a library or taking time to pray or meditate would bring peace and calm. Discovering that I am an HSP explained so many factors from my childhood, career and the unexplainable feeling that there was something wrong with me. The act of practicing loving yourself and being gentle with yourself is one of the most kindest and lifechanging things you can do for yourself.

I recently read The Handbook for Highly Sensitive People by Mel Collins, and felt touched by a lot of the ways she describes the experiences that HSP’s have during their lifetime. The book is separated into three sections. The first section expands on the term HSP. This includes the definition of an HSP, the Environmental and sensory triggers and the challenges HSP face. The second section looks at different strategies through processing emotions, practicing self-love and tapping. The third section talks about the spiritual perspective from exploring our past lives and maintaining inner balance.

The book is a great introduction for those who want to have a better understanding of being an HSP. The book reminds you that you are not alone in this journey, as it invites HSPs to recognize their strengths rather than look at themselves as flawed. Collins expands on the top ten challenges faced by HSP’s. These include being empathic sponges, deep emotional sensitivity, a feeling of not belonging, a difficult childhood, self-esteem and self-worth issues, relationship struggles , health issues, difficulty accepting the ‘inner darkness’, parenting parents or other family members and feeling unfulfilled.

Being empathic sponges can be draining due to the HSPs being kind-hearted and highly empathic by nature. When surrounded in a negative environment it can leave them feeling over-stimulated. Collins says that “HSPs often feel a need to withdraw from the outside world to release the energies absorbed and to recharge.” Deep emotional sensitivity is felt through the positive (joy, kindness and love) and negative emotions (guilt, shame, fear, hurt, loss, unworthiness, jealousy, anger and feelings of betrayal). A feeling of not belonging can start from a young age particularly for those who have experienced a difficult childhood.

Self-esteem and self-worth issues may arise due to the HSPs sensitive nature being criticized or judged from a young age, causing shame and embarrassment because of it. Relationship struggles can be common for HSPs such as nurturing friendships, as they are natural givers and good listeners. This can attract the friendship patterns that are one-sided. Health issues can be a problem as HSPs are extremely sensitive to pain. For example, they may experience disorders such as chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia or insomnia.

Difficulty accepting the ‘inner darkness’ is a common trait for many HSPs. HSPs tend to be kind-hearted people who want to be good to others. Collins states that “They often have difficulty accepting what is viewed as the ‘darker’ side of themselves. This can lead to them suppressing what they see as their more negative emotions.” The words Collins adds rings true “whatever you resist persists.” It’s important to find healthy and safe ways to release any suppressed emotions.

HSPs can grow up taking the role of the parent subconsciously. This is common for HSPs whose parents were emotionally unavailable. The final challenge Collins states is feeling unfulfilled. Collins states that “In my experience working with HSPs, many have a strong drive to feel they are making a difference in the world. As a result, many believe that if they don’t feel fulfilled in this way, they are in the wrong career.” Many may find that there is a long period where they may spend searching for what they are ‘supposed’ to be doing. However, she says that “In reality, however, any job has the capacity to reflect an aspect of themselves or meet an inner need […] Every job can be viewed in this way if you make a choice to do so – as a stepping stone towards a more fulfilling purpose.”

For many HSPs it can feel like you are spending a lifetime finding your purpose and understanding the depth and complexities of your emotions. Embracing your inner self and accepting that you feel deep emotions will free you from the chains. The pain was only extended through the deep fear of judgment and rejection for how I was feeling. Taking steps and finding specific ways that help you with your feelings is an important step to healing. I really hope in writing this, that it can help even one HSP know that you are not alone. I spent many years with depression and anxiety. I found methods such as meditating, praying, journaling, walking, being in nature and self-havening incredibly healing in the moments where I’ve felt helpless or overwhelmed.

Your sensitivity is your superpower. The ability to empathise towards others and deeply connect to animals, nature, music and the arts is a gift. The search for meaningful connections means that you give your all or nothing in friendships and relationships. Sensitivity is both a blessing and a challenge, but sensitivity is a strength, not a weakness. We live in a world that tells us that we need to be a certain way, but when we acknowledge the strength of being sensitive, it opens the door to understanding. The characteristics that you may have not seen as worthy are the very aspects that make you beautiful.

“By becoming conscious of what it is in the ‘darkness’ or ‘shadow, you are shining light into the darkness and encouraging it to dissolve.” – Mel Collins

Art by Kate Pugsley