Let’s be honest, right now, things suck. U.S. coronavirus cases are spiking. Unemployment levels are still high, with experts warning that our economy is about to sleepwalk off a massive cliff. Despite inspiring the largest movement in U.S. history, the tragic killing of George Floyd has done little to actually change brutal police policies. Adding tension to the chaos, many Americans are still stuck in their homes, squirrely, anxious and isolated.
No wonder the World Health Organization warned in May of “a massive increase in mental health conditions in the coming months.” Already nearly half of Americans say the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
If all of this makes you want to lock yourself in your bedroom and hide under your quilt, no one would blame you. That’s a natural reaction for anyone living through these cruel and unprecedented times.
Now imagine being a highly sensitive person (HSP), the 20% of the population who feel and process their experiences deeply. All of this news hits you, well, harder. It’s a baseball bat to the back to everyone else’s pulled shoulder.
Some may argue that HSPs — or, at this point, all of us — are simply acting out “mean world syndrome,” a term coined by George Gerbern in the 1970s to explain why people see the world as more hostile and dangerous than it really is. Gerbern blamed the media, who, in his words, tell “the stories of a culture” and were “a handful of global conglomerates that have nothing to tell, but a great deal to sell.” Keep in mind, this was a decade before the rise of 24/7 cable news networks, and long before Facebook.
Yet there’s no denying that something very real is happening in 2020 — scarcity and tragedy on a scale that many Americans have never experienced before — and HSPs are the ones who feel it to the marrow. However, Gerbern may have a point when it comes to the media, not just regarding HSPs, but all of us. Watching the news may make your anxiety worse, as anyone who has found themselves doomscrolling into the wee hours of the night can attest. During anxious times, we may seek information (a.k.a news) as a way to regain a sense of control, according to psychologist Jackie Bullis. Reading an article on Facebook may give us a quick hit, but unfortunately, the effect is short-lived. “Staying glued to the news actually increases our anxiety in the long-term because it contributes to the false belief that if we have enough information, we can remain in control,” Bullis writes.
Perhaps that’s why many HSPs report not being able to watch the news or go on social media right now. It’s simply too much. Jenesis, an HSP, feels the stress physically, as many sensitive people do. “As a woman of color and the daughter of an immigrant, I am terrified,” she tells me. “I have been sleeping less, and have experienced anxiety attacks where my chest feels tight and I have to sit down and focus on my breath. It feels like the only thing I can influence in a world that seems overrun by those who don’t care about the needs, health and wellbeing of others.”
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