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I’m just like everyone else.
I’m totally addicted to my smartphone. More specifically, I’m addicted to the social media apps on the smartphone.
Any chance I get, I’m scrolling.
I check the news, and look to see if anyone has posted a compelling new article, but I’m also guilty of nosiness. What’s my ex from 20 years ago doing? Is there a current outrage, or a political scandal? Maybe I should be doing something about it. Oh no, there’s a GoFundMe attached to an unspeakable tragedy. A friend I care about is publicly grieving a loved one on Facebook, while an old friend from high school, a vegan activist, just posted graphic photos of animal cruelty.
Soon it becomes overwhelming. The explosions both literal and figurative, the internet pile ons of the person who said the wrong thing, mob mentality, violent, disturbing videos depicting the cruelty we humans are capable of, children in cages, arguments defending children in cages, natural disasters, petty differences squabbled over in front of an ever-growing audience of angry strangers, hackers, arrests, climate change—it’s too much for me.
Minutes after getting sucked into the vortex of Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, I notice the all too familiar symptoms: nausea, dry mouth, tremors, shortness of breath, aches in my joints, chest pain and pressure. So much pressure.
I am having an anxiety attack.
Like many others, I am an empath. We empaths are extraordinarily sensitive individuals. We feel everything with an acute awareness, and we don’t just sense the emotions of others—we take them on, fully inhabiting their experiences, and we do this at a great cost to our own health and happiness.
What that means is that I can’t see a video of a neglected dog left out in the cold without feeling exactly like that dog. Stories about plane crashes immediately cause me to imagine, in great detail, what the passengers must have gone through in their last minutes.
I do this with every news story, and since most of our news involves tragedy and trauma, you can imagine what that does to my mental state.
And it’s not just global headlines. I empathize with the everyday grief, heartbreak, and disappointments of everyone I interact with on social media. Don’t even get me started on the guilt. I want to take on every cause, contribute to every charity, help everyone and everything, and I just can’t—so I feel awful.
Social media is a disaster for empaths.
The apps, and their easy, instant accessibility, cause informational and emotional overload. There is simply too much for us to take on and we short-circuit. The addictive nature of social media makes it nearly impossible for us to disconnect. I recently tried a total, cold turkey approach, and I lasted about two days.
While I enjoyed those two peaceful days, I realized that social media has become our society’s default, the preferred communication mode, and unplugging, for many of us, can have real life consequences. I missed out on a few professional opportunities, didn’t receive some important, work-related information, and I inconvenienced someone else as a result, which made my anxiety worse.
At the moment, breaking up with social media isn’t an option, so what can I, as an empath, do to protect my well-being?
We don’t have to eschew social media all together, but we need to be a lot more mindful about how we interact with it, and realize that we can make positive choices about our social media presence.
While it might seem that social media has the power, it is actually one medium that we can control. We just need to be deliberate about it.
Here are the steps that I take, as an empath, to ensure that my social media usage is healthier:
>> Avoid comment threads. I resist the urge, as best as I can, to comment on posts, even if I was going to say something supportive. I don’t always succeed at this, but I’m a work in progress. Even if I don’t comment, I’d still often find myself upset reading other people’s comments, often ones that were negative, abusive, and sensational. Now I’m working hard on staying away.
>> Block and hide as much as possible—even people you sincerely like. Remember the vegan friend? I love her to death and support her cause, but I can’t handle the animal torture pictures, so she’s hidden. That doesn’t mean she’s hidden in real life. If I want to interact with her I have to call or text her, which is no big deal. In fact, it’s actually more personal and I like making more of an effort to communicate with people I like.
>> Unfollow news sources. I finally got it that if something important enough happens in the world, I’m going to find out about it in time. I don’t need instant headlines 24-hours a day.
>>Turn off notifications. Most of them aren’t even remotely important.
>> Filter the information you receive. Based on my previous Twitter activity, you’d be convinced that we were currently living in a science-fiction, dystopian, horror novel, and that the world was burning around us and everything was anarchy. I cleaned up my feed a lot, discovered the magical world of poetry Twitter, and #WritingCommunity Twitter and now my feed is a world of creativity and support for other writers. I did the same with Instagram. My Instagram feed has been purged of all triggers, and now I use it to look at gorgeous travel photography and gardens. #GardensofInstagram is now my place of refuge and hope from the ugliness of the world. Whatever you like and whatever makes you feel good, just follow that and nothing else.
These five simple actions have saved me a lot of suffering.
Highly-sensitive, empathetic people absorb emotions and information on social media differently than others, but that doesn’t mean we need to go off the grid completely.
We can be empowered to make healthier choices, and use social media as a tool to promote positive energy in our lives.