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How Shocking Events Impact an Empath’s Mental Health

What is an empath?
An empath or highly sensitive person (HSP) is someone who experiences the emotions of others. Empaths have the unique ability to sense and absorb others’ emotions, which typically makes them extremely caring, compassionate, and understanding people.

Empaths have the ability to easily see another person’s perspective. On one hand, this is a wonderful trait, but it can create some real challenges. Empaths can feel misunderstood or become easily overwhelmed.

It can be especially challenging when an empath is exposed to emotionally intense information on the daily.

According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey, there’s plenty of conflict between the need to stay informed about current events and the stress that it causes. The survey indicates that 95 percent of adults follow the news regularly, but 56 percent of those who do so say it causes them stress.

For empaths, this stress is even more acute.

A 2017 study found that many people avoid empathy due to its cognitive costs. That’s not possible for empaths. For us, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate shocking events.

“As the media… is designed to get the attention of the rest of the population who do not feel deeply and have sensitive nervous systems, a sensitive person will feel emotionally bombarded, overwhelmed, and overstimulated if they consume as much media as a less sensitive person,” says Katie T. Larson, PhD.

Larson is a researcher, author, and growth coach who works exclusively with highly sensitive people, empaths, and intuitives.

Ways to cope when you’re highly sensitive
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I began to realize I process emotions differently than others. I felt vulnerable to every hurt and injustice but came across as cold and distant in an effort to shield myself.

I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. In some cases, I attracted narcissists and emotional manipulators. Other times, I was written off as indifferent because I didn’t know how to care without getting completely crushed.

Fortunately, I’ve learned ways to cope. While I’m not always able to follow these guidelines perfectly, I feel a huge difference in my mental health when I do.

Schedule news consumption time
One of the most practical ways to cope with shocking events is to limit your time scrolling social media and watching the news.

I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve looked up to realize I just spent hours scrolling. Scheduling your news and even using an actual timer makes a world of difference.

Dr. Tiffany Caplan, DC, is a celebrity doctor, board certified in integrative medicine, and a self-described empath. She has resorted to getting creative about keeping up with world events.

“My husband is very good about being objective about events and keeps up with everything going on. I, therefore, rely on him for ‘just the facts’ of what’s going on so I don’t personally have to see images or read things that will upset me,” Caplan says.

Set boundaries with yourself and others
I don’t say “no” well. When I do, I often feel incredibly guilty even when I shouldn’t.

This is sometimes referred to as “jellyfish boundaries” because you easily get stung. You become drained, irritable, and overwhelmed, leading to more guilty feelings.

While it may seem like setting boundaries doesn’t apply to watching current events, it’s important to know that some outlets present news in sensational ways to evoke emotional responses.

Take the time to find and consume news founded on logic, reason, and balance. Or try comedic sources of news for a lighthearted approach.

Setting boundaries with others when discussing current events is important too.

Not only are we often consuming negativity through the news, many of us then find ourselves stuck in conversations about it. You can make it clear to others if you don’t feel comfortable or need a break from discussing current events.

Reduce catastrophizing
Catastrophizing is a pattern of thinking that jumps to the worst-case scenario. Focusing on what-ifs often increases feelings of stress and anxiety. In truth, we don’t need much help exaggerating current events.

Start by getting clear on the current situation. Ask yourself, “What’s actually true right now?”

Be honest with yourself when you’re focused on what-ifs. You can tell yourself, “This isn’t actually happening. It’s just a fantasy.”

Ground yourself and mindfully decide what to do with your emotions
If you find yourself starting to spiral with panic and anxiety, it’s important to ground yourself back in the present moment. You can do this by using the 5-4-3-2-1 method, meditation, and guided imagery.

Larson suggests “creating a visualization or audio mantra that keeps you safe within your own energetic field. Some people choose phrases like ‘white bubbles’ or ‘I am safe’ and repeat them throughout the day to keep their nervous system calm and intact.”

Annie McDonnell is a licensed acupuncturist and sound therapy practitioner who focuses on giving patients self-care tools for emotional health and resilience. According to McDonnell, it helps to focus on the nervous system.

“By stimulating the vagus nerve to go into parasympathetic mode (‘rest and digest’ vs. ‘fight or flight’), we can help regulate our breathing, heart rate, and digestion. There are a few different ways to activate this mode,” she says.

Do something nice for others
Part of the problem for empaths and anyone who suffers from headline anxiety is that you want to help everyone but you can’t.

It’s impossible to make things better for everyone, but you can still do it for a few. Take action by volunteering for a cause that’s important to you, or engage in a simple act of kindness.

Simple acts of empathy can restore your sense that there’s good in the world too.

Engage your body
When you take up a hobby, exercise, or explore your feelings through journaling, you’re focusing on the now.

Exercise can be especially potent in changing your energy state.

“Allow your body to move and literally ‘shake off’ the emotions that are not yours. Movement is key, as there is much research to suggest actual immobility keeps emotions ‘stuck’ as well,” says Larson.

Even if you don’t like exercise, anything that brings you joy can help.

“We have been conditioned to react to headlines with outrage at all times, so our nervous systems become addicted to that pathway. When we engage in joyful, delightful, and pleasurable activities more often, we are retraining the pathways of our brain,” adds Larson.

Escape reality
Everyone wants alone time at some point, but empaths need it. It’s the main way we recharge our batteries and cleanse our emotional palate.

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