April Snow, MA, AMFT

Hi, I’m April, a psychotherapist who wants to help you heal your past wounds, embrace your true self and begin to thrive again.

The Problem of Social Media for Highly Sensitive People

The Problem of Social Media for Highly Sensitive People

How do you decompress on your lunch break, at the end of the day or anytime you need an escape? Most of us spend at least some of our time scrolling through our phone or hopping on social media. Unfortunately, in an effort to destress and unwind, we open ourselves up to more overstimulation and the negative effects of social media - dependency, lowered self-esteem and a false sense of connection, just to name a few. Despite feeling more lousy, it’s hard to pull ourselves away from our screens. As Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), we are particularly vulnerable to being negatively impacted by our dependency on the digital world. What seems like a simple way to relax and escape from the stress of our lives can lead to more overwhelm and emotional exhaustion.

How Does Social Media Impact Us?

It’s Overstimulating
As Highly Sensitive People, our brains are wired to notice subtleties and then deeply process all the information we come in contact with throughout the day (which is a lot!). This means we get easily overstimulated (our Achilles’ heel) which could look like anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating, headaches or other uncomfortable feelings. Social media is adding to all that information our brains need to sort through and creating more stimulation. What we actually need is a stimulation break during those quiet moments to ourselves!

It Triggers our Empathy
A few weeks back I was casually scrolling through Instagram on a Friday evening and saw a heartbreaking story about a young person who was looking for a family. I felt so sad throughout the whole weekend and still think of this story from time to time. Why was I more impacted than others would be? As HSPs, we have more active mirror neurons and emotional centers in our brains which gives us a greater capacity for empathy and emotional responsiveness. Whenever we come across an emotionally provoking story, whether it be about a person, an animal or an injustice, we have an emotional response. In a few seconds, we can go from casually looking at Facebook to being in a puddle of tears. If we’re already feeling stressed and exhausted, social media would not be a supportive way to soothe ourselves, but cause more upset.

It Creates FOMO
If you’re unfamiliar with the FOMO acronym, it stands for “Fear of Missing Out” which is a common experience for Introverts and Sensitive folks. When you look at your friends and connections on social media, it appears everyone is having a blast all the time. If you’re binging Netflix on a Saturday instead of going to a concert or spending all of Sunday reading instead of going to brunch, you may start to feel FOMO and a sense of “not enough” creep in.

This narrative of “we’re not enough for not doing enough” is one we know all too well. So often we miss out on events because we’re burned out, exhausted, overstimulated or stressed. Instead of needing to do all the things, it’s important that we be selective and take a “quality over quantity” approach. Embracing the “Joy of Missing Out” allows us to enjoy the activities we do choose to engage in. Since we’re wired differently, our needs are different, but the comparison that social media invokes can make it difficult to remember that.

It Invokes our Conscience
Whatever our beliefs, we tend to be very conscientious and justice-oriented which can get very messy on social media where having a balanced discussion can feel next to impossible. You may have had experiences where you got pulled into an argument with a “troll” or infuriated by someone’s hurtful comments. Instead, it could be helpful to direct this energy towards volunteer work or other altruistic pursuits where we could make an impact without the emotional and energetic drain on our already limited capacity.

How Do We Manage Social Media Use?

The obvious way to decrease the overstimulation of social media use is to decrease accessibility and use different self-care practices instead:

  • Remove social media apps from your phone or install an app blocker.

  • Unfollow accounts that are triggering or not aligned with your values

  • Be more intentional about using social media when you have the capacity and interest.

  • Set limits on your use by choosing when and for how long you want to engage.

  • Incorporate mindfulness tools, movement or creative activities into your downtime.

Before you restrict your access to social media, it can be helpful to identify a few of the tools or practices that you can use to soothe yourself when you are feeling stressed or need to decompress.

When we’re at home, hopping on our phones can become a default and we forget to engage in other activities that we enjoy, such as:

  • Reading

  • Creating Art or Crafting

  • Working on a Puzzle

  • Exercising or Doing Yoga

  • Watching a Movie

  • Meditating

  • Playing with a Pet

Often, we’ll reach for our phone at work or in public places because we need a break from the stimulation or distractions around us. If scrolling on social media creates more stimulation, how do we escape? Think of your smartphone as a tool to provide relief from the busyness around you or engage with your surroundings in a new way so you don’t feel trapped:

  • Read an article

  • Listen to a podcast or music

  • Watch an educational or entertaining video

  • Use a guided meditation (Insight Timer + Buddhify are my favorites)

  • Go for a walk or step outside, if possible

  • Find a quiet corner (or the bathroom) to close your eyes for a few moments

  • In a meeting, bring your gaze downward and focus on your breath from time to time

  • Bring earplugs to drown out noises in places like train stations and shopping malls

It’s natural to feel uncomfortable or frustrated with this transition in routine. We’re so habituated to reaching for our phones and using social media as a distraction from what’s uncomfortable or stressful in our lives. If you continue to struggle with this adjustment after a few weeks, I would recommend looking a little deeper at what stressors may be present or what you’re seeking with your social media use. For instance, you may need to set firmer boundaries with loved ones around your availability to reduce exhaustion or spend more time with close friends to feel a sense of connection.

The lure of social media can be problematic for everyone, but especially for Highly Sensitive People who are easily overwhelmed by too much information to process and need more downtime to calm our nervous systems after a busy day. I encourage you to ask yourself, “Is your social media use operating as a support or adding to your level of overstimulation?” If the latter is true, replacing social media use with self-care practices can help you feel more relaxed and present.

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