Life is filled with ups and downs for everyone. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) tend to feel ups and downs even more intensely than people who are not Highly Sensitive. Tips to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs can help.
Reactivity isn’t a bad thing. It can make life more stressful, though and is a core challenge to being an HSP.
For anyone, reactivity is especially common when feeling overstimulated. Too many things are happening at once, and your whole system is overloaded. It makes sense why someone may respond by reacting quickly or in a way you’d not otherwise if you were in a state of calm.
Highly Sensitive People have stronger reactivity to external and internal stimuli. Examples of external stimuli include noise, light, or course fabric. Internal stimuli includes things like hunger, fatigue, or pain.
The tips to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs are definitely NOT a suggestion that there is something wrong with being a Highly Sensitive Person. Or that something about you is broken and needs fixing. You’ve likely heard those kinds of messages — “you’re toooo sensitive” — outright or insinuated by others for years. That is not what these tips are about.
Bottom line: As a Highly Sensitive Person, you’re genetically predisposed toward overstimulation and reactivity. As a result, you’re prone to have strong reactions to things. That is just what it means to be Highly Sensitive. And there is definitely a silver lining.
First, an example of Reactivity:
Let’s say you and a friend are wading in the ocean. The water is cold, so it takes you a little longer than your friend to walk in up to your knees. You’re enjoying the sound of gulls and happy children. The warm sun on your skin feels phenomenal, and you’re in the here and now. Deep in thought. And feeling calm and centered. Ahhhhh. It is great to be alive!
You peer into the clear ocean water to look for sea creatures. There are hermit crabs, starfish, and minnows swimming by. You start writing a book in your mind about hermit crabs and the way they go about choosing the shell they call home.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, your friend splashes the cold, salt water in your face and laughs. You freeze momentarily. Then anger surges through your body. You have an impulse to scream. But you squelch the scream and leave the water, ignoring your apologetic friend. You may even notice tears in your eyes while you are simultaneously stomping to shore.
Your non-HSP friend is perplexed by what she considers to be your overreaction. She was only being playful, after all, and being splashed is ‘no big deal’. You, on the other hand, need to sit in the shade by yourself and ‘chill’ for a few minutes. Your entire nervous system feels out of sorts. Doing anything else feels non-negotiable. There is no faking it til you make it.
The hardest part of having the High Sensitivity trait is managing emotional reactivity. Especially when your mind becomes so overstimulated with thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
But there are ways to manage and ride the roller coaster.
Here are other examples of Reactivity/Overstimulation triggers for HSPs:
- Chemical smells
- Too many items on the to-do list
- Being late
- Unexpected traffic
- Cancellation of a planned event/appointment
- An appliance, mobile device, or your vehicle malfunctioning
- A dripping faucet
- Being observed
- Unexpected visitors
- Favorite food/drink being discontinued
- A task taking much longer than expected
- Transportation delays
- Lights that are too bright
- Doing a task under time pressure
- A loud or gross smelling hotel room
- The hum of a fan
These examples seem benign. And they can be But they can also be a source of ‘too muchness’ for HSPs. Especially if the things accumulate, and there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Whether a last minute change in plan–or you are splashed in the face with cold, salty water– reactivity is your system’s default mode.
While you can’t exactly alter your DNA and change this about your nervous system, there are other ways to navigate.
This is where tips come in handy for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive to life’s ups and downs.
Consider these 4 tips:
1. Tip #1 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive: Awareness:
Aka Be familiar with your Reactivity/Overstimulation triggers.
Pay attention to how being an HSP affects you and your day- to- day experience of life.
The more self-aware you are, the more agency you’ll have over choices available to you.
As you become familiar with how you roll, you’ll have a sense of what sets you off, why, and when.
Self–awareness puts you more in the driver’s seat. You can choose to head off overstimulating situations before you become reactive. Sometimes just knowing what could set you off can be helpful. (Which does not mean you ought to be on edge the whole time.)
Knowledge is power.
2. Tip #2 for Highly Sensitive People to be less reactive: Acceptance:
AKA Recognize that the trait has plusses and minuses.
There are so many aspects to being an HSP. It can be a superpower. Even reactivity can be a superpower. For example, if you’re watching a sunrise, your reactivity may cause you to become tearful. You re “verklempt” by the beauty of the sun’s rays and the start of the day.
Accept all facets of being Highly Sensitive. The hardest feature as an HSP to navigate is the reactivity to surprise, novelty, or aversive stimuli. Just knowing that is helpful.
Have self-compassion for yourself and your built in reactivity.
3. Tip #3 for Highly Sensitive People is to Anticipate:
AKA Certain scenarios, people, and feelings are more likely to cause you to be reactive.
But, not all HSPs react strongly to the same stimuli. (That is often due to the way nature and nurture affect development.)
You may for example find loud music enjoyable if you’re listening to it on your earbuds. But at a concert or in the car it’s too much. Someone else may prefer to listen to music at a concert and not just on their earbude. Anticipating the possibility of (or the equivalent of) nails on the chalkboard can provide you with some cushion (a soft, pleasant- to- the- touch- fabric kind of cushion, of course!). It may also provide an opportunity to have a conversation in advance to let others know you may be taking breaks and not to worry if you do.
4. Tip #4 is Self-care:
AKA Self-care is important for everyone, and a key tip for Highly Sensitive People to navigate life’s ups and downs with less reactivity.
HSPs feel things intensely. That includes our own or others’ emotions, the beauty of nature, or the stinging pain of a hangnail. Crowds, noises, and small talk can be hard to take.
Because of the extra stress we may be navigating and internalizing every single day, we have to treat our tender sensitivity as if it were a friend or loved one.
Speak in a caring tone to yourself, especially to the part that is prone to reactivity. Allow yourself to take breaks/time-outs. Schedule down time each day. Allow your units of energy to replenish.
Mindfulness exercises can be helpful. Examples of useful practices include deep breathing and body scans, as well as yoga and meditation. These are practices, not ‘perfects’.
Make note of how using any of the tips helps. Also note which ones need tweaking. Are any unhelpful?
Reactivity and overstimulation are known to cause stress, and stress contributes to physical ailments, including headaches, back pain, joint pain, insomnia, GI problems. A host of psychological challenges too. Such as anxiety, depression, and low self esteem.
Awareness, acceptance, and anticipation of situations that are more likely than not to cause reactivity is important.
Empower yourself by considering your options for how to proceed. Do you confide in a friend who will also be there, asking for their support? Or do you mention you may need to leave early? Do you make a promise to yourself to recognize when early signs of reactivity occur and then from there decide how to proceed?
Understand the indicators that extra rest or self-care are needed.
However you choose to handle the reactivity from life’s ups and downs, simultaneously recognize the many blessings and gifts that go along with being a Highly Sensitive Person.
You have those too.
Ever wonder why some people are Highly Sensitive, but most people are not?
Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) are born that way. Highly Sensitive.
High Sensitivity is not a disorder. Nor is it an attempt to be dramatic or to get attention. It’s a trait in the same way eye color is a trait.
HSPs’ nervous system is calibrated differently than non HSPs’.
The way HSPs process social, environmental, emotional, and physical stimulation is more intense and at a deeper level than people without the trait. It is biological.
If you are a Highly Sensitive Person, you’ve likely been called “too sensitive”, at least a thousand times. And advised more than a few times to “have a thicker skin” or to “lighten up.” (If I had a nickel for every time these comments were made to me….)
You may be among the 15-20% of people who is Highly Sensitive if, among other features, you tend to:
- Notice nuance and details
- Get stressed out or annoyed in chaotic environments – and need to retreat somewhere quiet to regroup
- Feel rattled when there’s a lot to do in a short period of time
- Find that you’re unable to watch violent movies or television shows – it’s just too disturbing
- Experience peace and awe in nature
- Need plenty of sleep, consistently, in order to function
- Are prone to getting hangry
The High Sensitivity trait, which occurs equally in males and females, is a result of a combination of genes. In fact, scientists have discovered at least three different genetic combinations among Highly Sensitive People. The gene variants include different configurations of the following neurotransmitters:
- Serotonin Transporter
Let’s look at these in more detail.
1. Serotonin Transporter and Highly Sensitive People:
Serotonin transporter is a chemical that transports serotonin out of the brain. HSPs have a variant of this gene (officially called 5-HTTLPR).
The 5-HTTLPR gene variant increases sensitivity to surroundings and is associated with learning from experience. The presence of the gene enhances the effects of both good and adverse childhood experiences.
This may explain why childhood experiences–positive and adverse–impacts wellbeing so much for a Highly Sensitive adult. For better or worse, HSPs’ childhood experiences affect them more than does the childhood of a person without the trait.
This neurotransmitter is known as the reward chemical.
If you have a sensitive nervous system, you don’t need much to feel “rewarded” by external stimuli. Chaotic, noisy, loud environments exhaust rather than excite you.
Let’s just say you don’t exactly get the same kind of dopamine hit that your non Highly Sensitive friends gets at a rock concert or other loud venue.
The same Dopamine variant is also relevant in understanding why HSPs feel more rewarded by positive social or emotional cues.
3. Norepinephrine and Highly Sensitive People:
Norepinephrine helps the body with the stress response.
And there’s one variant, common in HSPs, that boosts emotional vividness. If you have it, you tend to experience emotional aspects of the world intensely. You may also have more going on in parts of the brain that create internal emotional responses to experiences.
Most HSPs respond more strongly to emotions than do non-HSPs. In addition, they often notice emotional nuances where others don’t pick up on anything.
If you’re Highly Sensitive, this gene variant may be at least partly responsible. And it directly drives the level of empathy and awareness you have for others’ feelings.
So if 15-20% of a population has something in common, such as High Sensitivity, it is not considered a disorder. The rate is a lot of people in total but still uncommon enough that HSPs often report feeling weird or different.
HS has been found in at least 100 species, including fish, horses, fruit flies, and chimpanzees.
Highly Sensitive People and HS animals pick up on more environmental cues, recognize things that others don’t, and make wise decisions in new settings. They don’t rely on routines, which non HSPs and non HS animals tend to do.
There is definite survival advantage to being keenly aware of your environment.
In general, people who take the time to notice environmental cues before making a decision come out ahead — even with a high cost to doing so. HSPs’ sensitivity means they make better and better decisions over time.
So, here is the key point: If the rate of High Sensitivity were 100%, everyone would notice nuance and details. No one would have any advantage. That could explain why HSPs are about 15-20 percent of the population rather than 90, 95, of 100 %!
No more wondering why no one else thinks things through the way HSPs do. HSPs are able to see things others don’t see and feel emotions others don’t feel, That in and of itself creates value.
Further, HSPs feel positive things and negative things more intensely. Highs can be joyous, and lows can be horrible. For the survival of our species, only a subset with those features could exist.
The world needs diversity of all kinds, including people who are Highly Sensitive. And people who are not.
Ever wonder what steps to take to heal anxiety and depression?
The kind of anxiety and depression I’m focusing on here is not the everyday type, but the kind that is diagnosable.
Let’s start with the fundamentals.
Anxiety and depression are feelings. Feelings exist in the body.
As humans, most of us believe we’re cognitive, rational beings who sometimes feel.
However, we’re more like emotional beings who on occasion think.
Feeling emotions can be uncomfortable. Even painful. For many of us, a natural reaction is to turn away from emotion.
There’s at least one problem with the turn-away method. Turning away makes things worse. It will not help heal anxiety and depression.
Even benign attempts at distraction are very limited in effectiveness. If they do help, the relief tends not to last long.
A much better option is to lean into the emotion.
In other words, feel it to heal it.
Keep in mind that emotions have a beginning, middle, and end.
Emotions are like tunnels. If you go all the way through them, you get to the end.
If you get stuck in a tunnel, you don’t reach the end. Maybe you can’t find your way out. Or you get lost.
And so it is with feelings. When you get stuck in them, they stagnate.
A “stuck” feeling doesn’ get to the end of the tunnel. It leaves you smack in the middle of the anxiety and depression. Yuck!
Anxiety and depression: They’re just feelings.
Not finding your way completely through. Getting lost. That’s one way to think about anxiety and depression.
They are normal human emotions.
Feelings are just that – feelings. They rise from chemical changes in your body, and they’re neither good nor bad. They simply are.
Certain feelings are definitely more pleasant than others. Some feelings are more comfortable to have then others. That’s different than feelings being good or bad.
Feeling anxious is a natural reaction to stress. And stress may be more about what you’re telling yourself than about what actually is.
Your perception of something easily becomes your reality. The ‘what if’s’ and other forms of catastrophizing are good examples of cognitive distortions that lead to beliefs and then anxiety and depression.
If depression and anxiety become chronic, interfere with your life and relationships, and/or cause other problems for you, consider professional help. There is nothing wrong with that! Reaching out for help is courageous and wise.
Let’s say you decide to heal everyday forms of anxiety and depression on your own. Or perhaps you want to work on healing your anxiety and depression at the same time you’re in formal treatment.
Here are 6 steps for healing anxiety and depression:
1. Validate your own feelings.
Whatever you’re feeling is valid. Even if what you’re feeling is different from what others feel (or simply what you perceive they feel). You may prefer to feel some other emotion than what you are feeling. Acknowledge what it is you do feel. You have a right to feel whatever it is you feel.
2. Name it to tame it.
Identify with specificity the emotion(s) you’re feeling. Instead of “I feel bad”, try words that are more descriptive of the actual emotion. Does feeling “bad” mean you feel like you could crawl out of your skin? Or more like a sense of hopelessness? Defeat? Some combination?
The fancy name for this technique is emotional granularity.
Examples of emotional granularity may help clarify this important point. Different aspects and levels exist for both anxiety and depression.
For example, anxiety could be described as angst, apprehension, fear, stress, uneasiness, suffering, nervousness, freaking out, panic, restlessness, uncertainty, or dread.
In fact, a Google search found close to 100 synonyms for anxiety!
Even more synonyms exist for depression (at least according to Google). Examples include melancholy, sadness, gloom, sorrow, unhappiness, defeat, down in the dumps, woe, tiredness, and weariness.
A great strategy for emotional granularity is to use an emotion wheel.
3. Create new neural pathways, and let other pathways fill in to heal anxiety and depression.
Specifically, the neural pathways that are traveled most often are the ones you’re strengthening. What the heck does this even mean?
Your old stories (“I’m not good enough,” “I suck”) are literally keeping you stuck.
Each time you think a particular thought, you deepen that thought’s circuit. So you are always practicing and deepening something.
Rick Hanson puts it succinctly when he says, “Where your attention goes, neural firing flows and neural connection grows.”
So, whatever you pay attention to, wherever you put effort — that’s what you get more of.
With your thoughts — just by thinking — you are always strengthening something.
So, think negatively, and you’ll get more automatic negative thinking including more anxiety or depression or both.
In contrast, move from a place of strength, gratitude, or competence, and you will see more of your strengths and notice more reasons to be grateful..
Even thinking neutrally can be helpful.
4. Feel the feelings that exist in your body.
Use your body as an instrument to assist with processing the feeling “through the tunnel.” Find what works for you, which may vary depending on the feeling and context.
Mindfulness, defined as nonjudgmental awareness in the present moment, with acceptance of what you feel, may be helpful. “Welcome the feelings in for tea,” some Zen masters suggest.
Notice sensations associated with different emotions, as well as where the sensations are located. Doing so is a practice. The ease of identifying feelings and their location will vary over time and situations.
5. Move it.
Because feelings are located in the body, moving your body can be very helpful in processing feelings. This doesn’t have to be intense or considered “exercise”. Rather, just move around. Doing so activates serotonin neurons.
Why not take a walk in your neighborhood? Or groove to the beat of your favorite tunes?
6. Provide self–compassion. Give yourself some grace!
You CAN heal from anxiety and depression. Be kind to yourself. Not in a woe-is-me, pity party kind of way., but in a way that reminds you of the shared humanity, the universality, of what you’re experiencing.
Practice using tools that help you personally heal anxiety and depression. If the tools work for others but not so much for you, that’s ok. Keep practicing until you find what feels helpful.
Connect with other people in whose presence you feel supported. Consider yoga,meditation, journaling –something that is you-focused and can easily be a daily practice
Remind yourself that you will not ALWAYS feel anxious or depressed. This moment isn’t all moments. It’s just right now.
You won’t always feel this way,even if it feels in the moment as if you will.
Over time you’ll learn what helps to heal your anxiety and depression.
When you start to feel early signs of anxiety and depression, you may recognize that as an opportune moment to access your tools.
Include your body in the healing of anxiety and depression. Mind-body-spirit are star players on “Team Heal”.
No one thing causes eating disorders to develop. It’s more like a perfect storm of genetics, biology, psychology, culture, and environment. Lots of factors merge together at the same time.
Genetics is one of many factors in how eating disorders develop.
Genetics contribute for sure! In fact, they predispose individuals to eating disorders.
Eating disorders tend to run in families. And the rate of eating disorders is higher in identical twins than in fraternal twins or other siblings.
Biochemistry is a factor in how eating disorders develop.
Certain neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemicals are out of range among people with eating disorders. The levels are either too high or too low. These chemicals in the body are what regulate appetite, stress, mood, and sleep.
Among cis-gender girls, early menarche (compared to peers) can be part of the perfect storm.
Psychology plays a role, too.
Psychological factors contribute to how eating disorders develop. People with an eating disorder often also struggle with depression and/or anxiety. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is particularly common, occurring in 25-69% of women with anorexia.
Other psychological factors include:
- Poor self esteem
- Feeling a sense of hopelessness
Certain personality temperaments put a person at higher risk for an eating disorder. Traits like reward-dependence, harm-avoidance, and sensation-seeking may be part of that perfect storm. Obsessive-compulsiveness too.
Culture is another contributor.
We live in Diet Culture. It’s so pervasive and sneaky. In fact, we often don’t even realize how very much we’re impacted by its toxicity. It’s omnipresent. Ubiquitous. The lens through which we see ourselves and the world.
Dieting, body dissatisfaction and a drive to be thin increase the risk for an eating disorder. Diet Culture encourages all three.
Diet Culture is sneakily disguised as ‘a healthy lifestyle,’ ‘clean eating,’ or a trendy way to eat (like Whole30, Keto, or Noom).
If it has rigid rules or involves math, it’s probably a diet.
Diet Culture contributes to how eating disorders develop in many ways:
- An over-emphasis on appearance, at the expense of valuing inner qualities like kindness.
- Societal standards that promote an unrealistically thin body shape.
- Associating thinness with positive qualities like attractiveness, health, success, and love.
- Media’s focus on dieting and striving for a slim and toned body for women.
- Messages that perpetuate a fear of fat and food; viewing fat as undesirable or foods as “good,” “bad,” or “sinful”.
Intuitive Eating is a better alternative on all fronts. Its first of ten guiding principles is to ‘reject Diet Culture’. Mind you, the principles are not mandates. They’re gentle steps, associated with improved physical and psychological well-being. And unlike anything in Diet Culture!
Environment is an important factor in how eating disorders develop.
Your environment also plays a role in how eating disorders develop.
For example, what was your home environment like? How did family members communicate feelings? Did family members diet? Were/are they weight conscious?
What kinds of extracurricular activities did you participate in? How about the kind of friend group you were part of?
Aspects of an environment that may be relevant to how eating disorders develop:
- Family conflict
- Physical or sexual abuse history
- Activities that focus on weight, such as gymnastics, dancing, running, wrestling
- Peer pressure
- Being bullied because of weight or appearance in general
You have agency over some factors associated with how eating disorders develop, but not all.
In the same way that fish don’t know they’re wet, you may not realize the extent to which you’re immersed in Diet Culture.
However, you do have agency over many aspects of recovery.
With support, you can emerge. And you will. Stronger than ever. And as a true power source.
You will be the fish that went to school (pun intended), recognizes Diet Culture, and knows your way out of the storm.
I am Dr Elayne Daniels, a MA-based psychologist specializing in treating people with eating disorders and negative body image. Join me in ditching Diet Culture! Contact me here for more information.
What is the #1 most important thing to know about how to happily navigate life as a Highly Sensitive Person? That’s an easy one to answer!
To happily navigate life as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) you must first and foremost recognize you have the trait. Dr Elaine Aron, a pioneer in the HSP field, says that knowing you have the trait AND understanding it are absolutely essential to benefitting from it. Pure and simple.
No worries if you’re feeling overwhelmed about this whole HSP thing. By the time you finish reading this article, you will understand what it means to be Highly Sensitive. And you will then discover your own joys.
The scientific name for High Sensitivity is sensory processing sensitivity. When you identify that you are in fact one of the 15-20% of people with the High Sensitivity trait, you have the ticket for optimal navigation. The ticket doesn’t mean your navigation will be easy. But it will provide for a richer, more meaningful life as a Highly Sensitive Person.
Sensory processing sensitivity is present at birth. You may as well learn to leverage the many benefits of the High Sensitivity trait. After all., like eye color, it’s part of who you are.
The four pillars of High Sensitivity include (aka what it means to live life as a Highly Sensitive Person):
Depth of Processing:
- You tend to spend time reflecting.
- And you take your time thinking through decisions.
- Naturally you take in a lot of information around you and within you – without effort or intent.
- You’re aware of subtlety and nuance that others simply are not.
- And have strong intuition.
- HSPs process everything MORE by relating and comparing present moment to past experiences and observations.
- And you contemplate all options carefully.
- You have more brain activation in a part of the brain called the insula.
- The insula is responsible for our awareness of what is going on inside and outside of us.
- You notice a lot in all situations.
- You’re aware of details others aren’t.
- You may feel people’s feelings, even when they don’t feel their own.
- Because of all the stimulation, you’re more prone to feeling overwhelmed.
- Because of all you notice, remember, hear, see, manage, and process, of course you’re more likely to feel overwhelm, and sooner.
- Your positive and negative emotional reactions are strong.
- You’re in tune with other people’s emotions.
- Empathy is purely natural for you.
- You may even feel people’s energy field.
- HSPs uniquely respond to pictures with a “positive valence” – especially if they had had a good childhood.
- “Vantage sensitivity” is the fancy phrase referring to HSPs’ tendency to benefit a disproportionate amount from positive conditions and interventions.
- More active mirror neurons explain why HSPs naturally read emotion and have automatic deep empathy.
Sensitivity to subtleties:
- Your senses are highly attuned because of how you process sensory information.
- The attunement is not due to “bionic” hearing or sight, but rather to the way you process input from your senses.
- Brain areas are very active when HSPs perceive things because of complex processing of sensory information.
What are 5 tips to happily navigate life as a Highly Sensitive Person?
1. Recognize you’re an HSP. Understand what being a Highly Sensitive Person means so you can enjoy life as a Highly Sensitive Person.
This is essential so you can reframe certain messages you’ve likely heard a million times. Messages such as being “too sensitive”, needing “to lighten up”, or having your feelings invalidated, downplayed, and dismissed in other ways.
You’re not too sensitive. You’re “just right” sensitive. And/or maybe the other person is not sensitive enough. Or even insensitive. Or how about “too insensitive”?
Total. Game. Changer.
2. Awareness of subtleties means you can access and enjoy simple pleasures in life as a Highly Sensitive Person.
For example, see all the gorgeous shades of lavender and pink in each Hydrangea? Beautiful! How about the differences in shape of all the blossoms? What you naturally see, people without the trait do not naturally see.
3. You can use your ability as a Highly Sensitive Person to tune into nonverbal cues strategically. Such as to assess someone’s trustworthiness.
While you don’t exactly have Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) like in the movies, you do have a sixth sense. You are aware of nonverbal cues and all kinds of subtleties. Trust your gut instincts.
4. Incorporate time to unwind after tasks, events, and times of day in your life as a Highly Sensitive Person. Consider downtime as an obligation to your nervous system.
Without sufficient time to recalibrate, your nervous system will be fried. And recalibration time can be as short as 1 minute, but preferably longer.
Downtime is kind of like lemon sorbet as a palate cleanser between courses of a fancy meal. It gives you a break from sensory stimulation, You can refresh in order to enjoy the next course. Just like your taste buds in the sorbet example!
For downtime ideas, you could pick from a hat. Write a bunch on pieces of paper and then close your eyes and pick one. You could choose from coloring in an adult coloring book, doing a word search, listening to a favorite song or track, taking a walk, or just going outside in nature and taking a few cleansing breaths.
5. Pace yourself. Avoid rushing! Savor life as a Highly Sensitive Person.
Tune into yourself to determine what you need. Make the time to give yourself whatever that is, to the extent possible.
Try to resist any pressure to go with the pace of a crowd. If you go at the crowd’s pace, you’ll quite possibly become overstimulated. Remember, you take in soooo much more than people who are not Highly Sensitive.
So now you know the number one most important thing about being an HSP is understanding the trait. And allowing the trait to serve you well. Because it will.
There are plenty of articles about the terrible ways social media affects body image for people of all ages. And for good reason. They’re true.
Social media can be a huge body-image killjoy.
You probably already know this, even firsthand— especially if you identify as female. And Diet Culture of the United States and other Western countries just adds to the problem.
Scrolling through images of friends, acquaintances, and influencers can be a real downer, especially if you’re competitive. Who got more ‘likes,’ ‘loves,’ comments? Why did I get a thumbs-up, but she got a red heart?
Scrolling can be particularly tough on self-esteem. The same is true if you’re comparing yourself to determine who’s the hottest, most popular, or other (fill-in-the-blank)est.
Social media provides a 24/7 opportunity to compare yourself to countless others’ highlight reels and to internalize Diet Culture messages.
Social media spreads toxic Diet Culture themes, such as:
- Body dissatisfaction (for all genders, especially people who identify as LGBTQ)
- Internalization of the cultural ideal
- Disordered eating
A 2019 report suggests that more than 3 billion people are active social media users. That’s nearly half of the world’s population.
The impact of social media on how we think and behave is mind-blowing.
Keeping up with the Kardashians and with other trends, looking a certain way, and having a particular aesthetic have become a given. And social media posts communicate this loud and clear.
Social media demonstrates beautifully that “comparison is the thief of joy.”
Even though Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t referencing social media, his sage insight is as fitting now as it was then.
How are you using social media?
There are many different ways to use social media.
How you use social media affects body image. For example, how do you consume what other people post? Are you taking, editing, and uploading selfies? Do you follow close friends and family? Or a bunch of celebrities and influencers? Which platform do you prioritize?
Most likely you do some combination of consuming, uploading, and following.
As we said, social media is toxic for body image, largely because of the built-in comparisons it promotes.
Self-objectification is at the heart of the problem.
Self-objectification occurs when you internalize an observer’s view of your own body. (As if your body is a mound of clay to measure, shape, and control.) By viewing and treating your body as an object, you essentially scrutinize your own body in anticipation of being evaluated by others.
Your body becomes a ‘thing’/object to monitor, manage, and curate rather than a means of expressing your life.
Is viewing social media always associated with poor body image?
This is a ‘no, but.’
Social media use is consistently and positively associated with negative body image. (That’s the ‘but.’)
Scrolling through the feed of a Diet Culture-oriented fitness instructor, for example, will likely worsen body image.
However, researchers have identified some nuance in the effects of social media on body image.
For example, different social media platforms impact body image worse than others.
In fact, a recent study suggests Instagram users spend more time looking at images of people, while Facebook users spend more time looking at images without people in them. And FB users tend to read and write more content.
It’s no surprise, then, that Instagram users report more appearance comparisons than Facebook users.
Women in the study’s Instagram condition also reported thinking about their appearance significantly more than women in either the Facebook or (online game) Bejeweled conditions.
Another example in the ‘yes’ column: time spent on body positivity sites can improve body image.
Do #BoPo images really help people improve body image?
In social media language, #bopo refers to body positivity, The purpose of #bopo images is to encourage acceptance of and appreciation for all body types.
Viewing body-positive images on social media sites can be associated with improved body image. But not always.
The basic criticism of Body Positivity is that the focus is still on bodies. The ‘love your body at any size’ message of #bopo is lovely. But, again, focus is still on appearance.
Our bodies are more than something to look at. How strongly you identify with that belief system affects the impact #Bopo images have on you.
What about #Fitspo posts?
“Fitspiration,” aka #fitspo in Instagram language, is a popular social media category. #Fitspo images promote exercise and ‘healthy eating’ (aka Diet Culture) as a source of encouragement and inspiration.
(Please pardon the snark here: If the encouragement and inspiration are meant to inspire a nosedive in body image, mission accomplished.)
Exhibit A: In a 2017 study, 160 female undergraduates viewed either #fitspo, self-compassion quotes, or a mix of the two. Here are the findings:
#Fitspo viewers were low on self-compassion.
“Fitspiration” images were associated with being self-critical.
Compassionate quote viewers (e.g. “You’re perfect just the way you are”) were kinder to themselves AND thought more positively about their bodies.
Good news! For those who viewed #fitspo and self-compassion quotes, the benefits of self-compassion outweighed (pardon the pun) the negatives of #fitspo.
Geek alert: Much of the research on how social media affects body image is based on correlational studies, which means we can’t say that one thing (social media posts) causes another (poor body image). It’s possible that social media and poor body image are linked for other reasons. For example, people with body image issues may be more likely to use social media.
What about posting selfies?
When it comes to posting pictures on social media, selfies prevail.
Selfies are photos taken of oneself or of oneself in a group. They’re often used on social media sites as a way to present oneself.
Modifying selfies so we appear more conventionally attractive (that’s Diet Culture speak for thinner) is an automatic step in posting. We “edit” ourselves to accumulate more followers and boost our social media presence and reputation.
Among female college students (and probably among most people), taking and posting selfies, with and without photo-retouching, worsen mood and body image. This is true even when editing, filtering, or otherwise retouching selfies.
Selfie takers still tend to focus on what they don’t like about their looks.
Retouching photos doesn’t prevent a body image decline. Maybe the anxiety of accumulating “likes” and “loves” interferes with better body image. After all, the likes and loves can only provide temporary boosts or relief. #Reality!
Some experts suggest spending a lot of time perfecting selfies may indicate a person is struggling with body image.
Is this just a female thing?
Negative effects of social media posts on body image extend to people of all ages and genders.
Men are not immune.
For example, a study found that men who reported looking at male #fitspo content more frequently said they compared their own appearance to others more often and cared about having muscles more. As a result, they had more body dissatisfaction and appearance-oriented motivation to exercise.
Among men, #Fitspo content is linked to concern about being muscular and lean for appearance’s sake.
Body image challenges existed long before selfies and social media were even a twinkle in the eyes of its creators.
Unfortunately, social media offers a stage and forum for users to compare bodies and popularity.The use of filters adds even more pressure to appear perfect. The overall effect of social media, at least as far as body image is concerned, is that of a toxic mirror.
Consider for yourself ways to curate your feed and posts so they align with your own values. Especially when it comes to YOUR body and YOUR self-esteem.
I am Dr Elayne Daniels, a psychologist in MA specializing in helping people improve their relationship with their body. Life is soooooooo much better when you and your body are on the same side! Contact me here if you would like more information.