I recently saw “Joker” and both completely loved and also hated it. It was enthralling, the acting was phenomenal, and my nervous system took quite a while to recover afterward! I won’t go any further into movie critic mode but it really got me thinking. Media literacy is important for anyone consuming the plethora of information available at our fingertips; For people with sensory processing sensitivity (highly sensitive people, a.k.a. HSP’s) [1], the things we choose to watch, read, and listen to become an issue of physical and mental health.

    HSP’s have above-average activity in their mirror neuron response [2]. That means we have stronger reactions to learning about or seeing others’ strong emotions. When we watch, read, or hear about another’s emotional experience, our brain reacts as though the experience happened in real life [3] and often as if the experience happened to us. A horror movie or a painful article about tragic world events that might not phase a non-HSP could leave someone with SPS overwhelmed to the point of having nightmares for days.

    Step 1: Define Your Triggers

    Pay attention to your emotions as you consume certain podcasts, movies, topics, books, etc. Check in with yourself regarding whether you currently have capacity to introduce and process stressful information. Maybe it would be better to absorb something intense during  a week when you have less stress. Learn your own hot buttons and respect them. If certain things upset you more than they help or entertain you, give yourself permission to avoid and minimize them.

    For example, I suffer a lot from seeing animals mistreated or killed, even in fictional media. I know enough about the visual aspects of animal-related industries that I don’t learn anything helpful from witnessing additional cruelty. When I choose to learn ways to help animals, I seek out less extreme forms of information (See Step 5).

    Step 2: Do Your Research

    Quiz people who already consumed the media you’re contemplating. First of all, ask if it was good! I’m only half-kidding.

    Don’t forget to insist “No spoilers!” if that’s important to you. However, many people with SPS prefer a spoiler over a painfully overstimulating or upsetting surprise. Explore movie content without learning all of the details on sites like doesthedogdie.com, where loving fellow entertainment- and info-seekers share whether certain themes appear. Reading through the “Joker” list [4] of potential triggers ahead of me time helped me decide to see it. I was prepared for some of the scariest parts and able to cover my eyes when I knew something I didn’t want to see would happen soon.

    Step 3: Question the Outcome

    Ask yourself a series of questions to honestly assess whether the benefits outweigh the costs. What do you have to gain from consuming this media? Could it be healing? Could it make you feel worse? Would it help you process or emote in a way that you don’t feel comfortable doing otherwise? A little of all of the above?

    It’s easy to indulge our shadow shelves [5] in misguided ways. Reflect on the urge you’re having to subject yourself to painful stimuli and find out whether another outlet might be more beneficial in the long run. You may be confusing a desire to consume something upsetting with pressure from your shadow to release. Rather than seeking a quick fix, perhaps a talk with a trusted loved one, an artistic expression, or a simple journaling session would actually be more cathartic.

    Step 4: Give Yourself Permission to Say “No Thanks.”

    For non-HSP’s, this may not make any sense. They may unknowingly encourage you to expose yourself to unhelpful, unhealthy media. Feel free to interrupt a story if you sense it’s heading in an overly upsetting direction. Your mental health is more important than someone else being able to finish their thought. If it’s a safe relationship, use the interruption as an opportunity to share about your SPS and related needs. Clarify that you care about the other person’s interests and want to continue a conversation, but that specific issue is off limits. If you don’t feel comfortable making yourself vulnerable, trust your instinct to cut the story off or change the subject, then move on. A relationship in which you don’t feel emotionally safe is not the place to make sacrifices to your wellness.

    Step 5: Find Media that Works for Your Individual Needs

    Most people need to avoid certain topics altogether. Struggling with deeply personal triggers can bring about a lot of personal shame. Every single human has strong inner reactions at some point or another (or many others!).

    There are plenty of ways to make sure you’re involved with world events, pop culture, and social media without subjecting yourself to unnecessary distress. Look for resources that share important information without sensationalizing it. The Skimm’s [6] email newsletter is one example. You don’t have to bury your head in the sand to stay both sane and in touch with worldly happenings.

    If you’re into comedy, look into media offerings that infuse the news with humor. NPR’s news radio show “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me” and “The Daily Show” are only a couple of many possibilities out there.

    I’ll say it again: Your mental health is worth scrutinizing the media you consume. Don’t let FOMO, shame, and peer pressure compromise the quality of your life.

    If you think HSP’s are overreacting by being deeply impacted by media, you’re probably not a HSP. And that’s ok, too, I’m just surprised that you read this entire article!

    [1] Read my summary of SPS here.

    [2] “The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4086365/

    [3] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/mirror-neurons-and-why-we_b_3239534

    [4] https://www.doesthedogdie.com/media/20457

    [5] https://lonerwolf.com/shadow-self/

    [6] https://www.theskimm.com

    As always if you want to know more about starting therapy with me, begin your quest for sustainable healing here.

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