Highly Sensitive People and Shitty News Weeks

copyright Aaron Caycedo-Kimura (accessed at introvertdear.com

Credit: Aaron Caycedo-Kimura (accessed at introvertdear.com)

There are people who can sit down and turn on a 24-hour news station and watch with interest all of the events unfolding around the world. Some of them can keep watching even while they read the news on their phones and computers, too. They can ingest all of these awful things happening in the world and then, just as quickly, they power off and go and do something else. They don’t carry it with them.

There are other people who can only deal with the news in small doses. This kind of person truly just can’t with the news. It’s overwhelming and upsetting and it doesn’t end when the news stops. The feelings stick around and overwhelm them.

If you, like me, are one of the latter, this week has been somewhat soul-crushing for you. First there’s convicted rapist Brock Turner. Then someone just walks up and kills someone signing autographs. Then the largest mass shooting in US history takes place. Then everyone starts fighting about gun control. Then politics. Then an alligator drags a 2 year old into water. Everything is too damn much this week.

I’ve always marveled at people who can just put something out of mind because I’ve never been able to do that. I attributed it to anxiety, which I’m sure plays a part, but as I’ve grown older, my interest in and understanding of the issue has evolved. The harder I try to not think about something, the more it keeps springing back to the front of my mind, and I’m bothered by all of it to degrees that don’t always make sense to me.

It used to be that when tragedies happened, I would become completely immersed in them. Like those people who can ingest all the news available to them, I could take it all in and just keep watching, horrifying as it sometimes was. But something somewhere changed in the past few years. It’s not so much being immersed in the coverage anymore as much as it’s being immersed in the feeling of it and being completely useless otherwise because I’m distracted just thinking about it.

* * *

No one who has ever met me for more than 10 seconds would dispute my introversion. I’m quiet and in my head a lot. I prefer to spend time with a small group of people versus a lot of people. Socializing is draining to me. I feel very anxious. I hate talking on the phone. I detest small talk.  I prefer listening to speaking. If you get on my case about not having lengthy conversations with you for no real reason, I will get angry and will probably have no conversations with you at all because that’s not the kind of person I am. I’m not rude; I’m quiet. “Tough love” infuriates me. When people tell me to “just get over it” or “toughen up,” I want to kick them. I think better in writing than I do out loud, and it’s not uncommon for me to think of something to contribute to a conversation about 4 hours after that conversation ends.

Having recently read Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, my understanding of what it means to be an introvert has grown significantly, to the point that I can now understand how my introversion is directly impacting my reaction to this week and contributing to my I-JUST-CAN’T-ness.

There are a lot of ways to be an introvert. Some are shy and some aren’t (shyness, I have learned, is something different from just being introverted). Some have anxiety and some don’t. Some have depression and some don’t. Some can deal with change and others can’t. Some are highly sensitive and some aren’t.

As it happens, it turns out that I’m a highly sensitive introvert who is shy and deals with anxiety and depression but doesn’t deal well with change. My Myers-Briggs personality type is consistently INFJ — supposedly the rarest type.

It’s the “highly sensitive” part that I want to focus on right now because I sense that there are other highly sensitive people out there who are also trying to wrap their minds around this week while simultaneously hiding from it as a defense mechanism.

* * *

First things first: what are some characteristics of highly sensitive people (HSPs)?

For fun, I visited the website for the author who wrote the authoritative book on HSPs and answered these questions designed to give an idea of whether or not you are highly sensitive. This article on the Huffington Post echoes a lot of the same points. This is apparently a thing and I just never knew about it. To summarize (and to be clear, I’m summarizing from these two sources, which are consistent with many other resources for and about highly sensitive people, as well as from my own knowledge), HSPs are characterized by:

  • Feeling on a much deeper level than the average person
  • “Absorbing” the emotions of people around them or of those they are observing
  • Heightened sense of empathy
  • Trouble with “just getting over it”
  • Being highly conscientious
  • Intolerance to sounds that most people are able to tune out
  • Intolerance to smells that others might not notice
  • Increased senses/sensory overload
  • Being very detail-oriented
  • Strong sense of intuition/gut feeling — can often “just know” things about people and situations without being able to necessarily explain how
  • Highly observant
  • Emotional reactivity (highly reactive)
  • A tendency to go to lengths to avoid conflict
  • A tendency to go to lengths to avoid violence (including the news, movies, etc.)
  • Becoming overstimulated by their surroundings (and shutting down)
  • Being easily overwhelmed
  • High stress levels
  • Health problems
  • Sleeping problems

You don’t have to have all of those to be considered highly sensitive, but the more of them you have, it’s probably more of an indicator that you are. I don’t know about you, but when I started reading about all of this, it felt like someone was saying, “Don’t worry. You’re not a total weirdo. Look! We’ve just summarized your personality in all of these bullet points.” It was strangely comforting and explained so much about me.

(Like, for example, when my dad plays SongPop incessantly or plays it WHILE watching TV and/or listening to music: I don’t get annoyed because of the sound itself. I get annoyed because the sound is MUCH LOUDER to me than it apparently is to other people, and it strips my focus completely.)

* * *

How this pertains to the news this week

When you look at a list of what makes highly sensitive people highly sensitive, maybe you can understand how tragedy can feel totally overwhelming to us. It’s violence that we can’t get away from. It’s the arguing that follows. It’s the conflict springing up among our friends and families as they argue about gun laws and/or everything else.

It’s too. damn. much.

Yesterday I felt like I couldn’t get away from it. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t focus. Every single time I even glanced at a headline about the mother who received text messages from her son shortly before he was gunned down, my eyes welled up. I’m not a mother, but that one slayed me every time. To me, that was the Orlando equivalent of the 9/11 falling man. And all I wanted to do was talk to my mom. Every time I saw something about a 2 year old getting pulled into the water by an alligator, I felt overwhelmed because my head started swirling with what I realistically know are implausible scenarios of my young nephews being snapped up by alligators (note to my sister: they are never to visit Florida or anywhere else where alligators might be, including all natural bodies of water). So I left my house. I went and I bought a fan because my air conditioning has been out for a week and a half. I went to the grocery store because my food supply consisted of moldy rolls (thanks to how hot and humid my apartment is) and half a glass of iced tea.

As I finished returning my cart after loading my car, I heard someone shout, “Excuse me, ma’am?”

I looked up. There was a women who works for the grocery store collecting carts from the carrel in the next parking row over, some 20-30 yards away from me.

“Did you hear that they found that little boy’s body?”

Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.

I could actually hear ringing alarms in my ears that just screamed “get out of here as fast as you can.” I opened my car door. “Oh, no. I didn’t. That’s too bad.” Get out, get out.

First: small talk. I really don’t like when someone I don’t know just strikes up a conversation with me out of the blue.

Second: a situation I had fled my house to avoid thinking about.

“Yeah,” she said. “He’s dead.”

“Oh,” I replied, trying to get into my car, annoyed that she wasn’t taking the hint. She is 25 yards away and yelling this across a parking lot at me. Why? What about me said to her, “She looks like a good person to tell about a 2 year old’s violent and totally preventable death, completely unprovoked”? But she just kept going.

“My sister just called me and told me. The alligator got him.”

Nephews!

This week is TOO. DAMN. MUCH. 

* * *

How can highly sensitive people survive overwhelming and shitty news weeks?

I’m not an authority on this, but I’m figuring out how to deal with being in a world that apparently doesn’t always experience or process things on the same level that I do (and really, that’s what’s cool about people: we all have different personality styles and experiences that provide a range of perspective).

  • Read a book. Get in another world for a while (but make it a book with a world that is a little better than the one you’re living in. I made a mistake by trying to “escape” into A Little Life.)
  • Watch something totally ridiculous or plucky or mindless. I’ve started watching 7th Heaven on Hulu because … I don’t have to think about it and as long as you don’t think about all that stuff with Stephen Collins, it’s generally a pretty positive show. I also watched some of the best/worst Lifetime-y movies on Netflix that I have ever seen. Look for anything starring Lacey Chabert.
  • Clean.
  • Call someone. I don’t usually love talking on the phone and especially not when I don’t really have anything to say, but just having some company takes me out of my head for a while. Texting works too.
  • Avoid social media. I’m trying. I’m not really succeeding, but I’m trying.
  • Avoid the news. Sometimes you just have to. It’s not ignorant if it’s self-preservation. Look out for #1.
  • Focus your energy. Do something with your hands. Build something. Make something. I knit because it’s soothing to me.
  • Exercise. This can be tremendously helpful (as long as your air conditioning doesn’t go out. If you’re exercising in your house and it’s 80+ degrees in there, the feeling that you are about to pass out, throw up, or have a heart attack is not really worth it).
  • Just feel it. Sometimes the world is just too ugly to be a tough guy about it and the only way out is through.

So if you’re like me and you’re just figuring all of this out about yourself, maybe this will help. If you’re close to someone who is a highly sensitive person, maybe this will help some of their behavior make more sense to you. If you’ve known for a long time that you’re a HSP, then please share your own strategies in the comments! Either way, especially in weeks like this, we could all use a little more positivity.

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