Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person on social media

How Social Media Affects the Highly Sensitive Brain

Whatever social media platform you’re on, there’s a lot going on. This can be overstimulating for anyone, but it’s especially intense for HSPs.

In April 2021, an unedited photo of Khloe Kardashian in a bikini was posted accidentally to social media — and the internet blew up.  

Her PR team went into overdrive trying to get the picture taken off any and all platforms. Meanwhile, people everywhere commented on how she missed a golden opportunity: to promote positive body image in an overly-altered online world.

I remember feeling sad that such a public figure wasn’t comfortable sharing a picture that, in my opinion, was beautiful in its rawness. But it’s an excellent example of how social media is not the same as real life — and how it can do a number on our minds.

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I’m cautious in how — and when — I use platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I know that I’m overly vulnerable to all types of stimuli, and social media is very stimulating. I’ve also learned that there are specific ways online platforms affect how we think — and understanding those effects can help us use social media more carefully and mindfully.

Here are some common ways I see social media impacting the HSP psyche, followed by ideas for using social media in a positive way.

What Social Media Does to an HSP Brain

1. It causes the comparison game: Should you be doing more with your life like they are?

HSPs tend to like slower, quieter lives. We value activities that others might see as boring or uneventful, such as reading for hours or having a movie marathon at home. But even if we’re content with doing “less,” social media can lead to an intense fear of missing out. If we see everyone on Instagram out having a great time on Saturday night, we might suddenly feel lonely or question our favorite activities.

HSPs might also define success differently than those around us. We tend to care less about status or material things. Maybe we aren’t hitting career or relationship “milestones” that society sees as superior — getting engaged or married, earning a doctorate, buying a big house, getting that corporate job promotion, and the list goes on… HSPs are just as capable of doing these things, but we often prioritize less flashy sources of meaning. We value helping others, spending time with close loved ones, quietly contemplating, and making time for self-care. 

At the same time, seeing the constant stream of social media updates has us wondering things like: Am I not trying hard enough? Is everyone better off than me? Should I be doing more with my life?

Spoiler alert: You’re doing just fine. Social media only shows the best moments in peoples’ lives, and besides, there are many ways to have a meaningful life.

This all starts within our brains. 

According to studies on the internet and thoughts, the online world can influence how we store and process information. For example, a 2012 study found that the size of someone’s online network is closely linked to how the brain processes social thoughts. In other words, the brain might not see a difference between online and offline relationships. 

Social media makes it easy to share any part of our lives. And while most people share the highlight reel, it’s human nature to compare in a way that makes us feel inadequate.

Someone can post a heavily filtered photo on Instagram and, even if we suspect it’s been altered or the person chose a flattering angle, our brains still compare. We feel inadequate about our own real appearance, which can chip away at our body image over time.

2. It contributes to sensory overwhelm and overstimulation.

Whether you’re on Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok, there’s a lot going on. You can view hundreds of images, videos, and lines of text within minutes. This can be overwhelming and overstimulating for anyone, but it’s especially intense for HSPs.

You might not realize how much a seemingly harmless scroll is getting to you until you’re holding your breath, breathing fast, and wondering why you feel so worked up. A simple tap on that Twitter’s cute little bird icon can drag me down a rabbit hole… and suddenly I’m feeling uptight and unable to focus on what I need to do. 

Highly sensitive people are more easily stimulated than others, and they are often startled or annoyed by sounds. That includes pings and dings on our cell phones. Constant notifications are easily distracting from the world in front of us. Research, too, has found that our minds see online feedback as a reward, which makes those alerts hard to ignore.  

For example, I’m easily rattled if I get notifications while trying to focus on another task. If I don’t silence my phone, I’m drawn to every like or comment that pops up. It’s hard to get anything done, and it causes a lot of anxiety. Constant information online makes it impossible to have sustained concentration on any one task. And HSPs excel when they single-task

Also, highly sensitive brains need plenty of time to quietly process — alone. With social media at our fingertips, we have access to 24/7 socializations. For HSPs, this can be a nightmare. We can become easily stressed and depleted if we don’t manage our social media usage.

3. It induces the emotional hangover HSPs often experience.

Oftentimes, social media triggers emotional responses in us HSPs that can be draining and distracting. We might become sad, angry, or jealous just from scrolling for a few minutes.

This could look like:

  • Ruminating on a mean or judgmental comment someone made
  • Feeling angry or sad about something going on in the world (and feeling hopeless to speak up or do something)
  • Reading political arguments and getting emotionally invested in them
  • Becoming overwhelmed by a sad video (such as an abused dog in need of a home) or even a happy story (such as someone beating cancer)

Highly sensitive people are very in tune with others’ emotions. Not only that, but we also absorb those emotions and feel them as our own. So when we see emotionally charged social media posts, it’s not so simple to brush them off. We feel the need to engage and understand what the person on the other side of the screen is going through.

Before the internet, we interacted with a small number of people each day — maybe a couple of family members and coworkers. But with social media, we can view hundreds of interactions on one screen within one day. And when you’re sensitive to the emotions behind each post, it can leave you nursing an emotional hangover.

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Helpful Social Media Guidelines for HSPs

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Social media sites have some amazing benefits for HSPs. We can connect with people like us from all over the world. And as people who don’t like noisy environments so much, the internet lets us join conversations and express ourselves from anywhere — including the couch!

I enjoy social media as an HSP, but in limited capacities. Here are some loose rules I set to protect myself from anxiety and overwhelm.

  • Remember that social media isn’t reality. If you struggle with social media comparison, remember this: Almost every image you see on social media has been altered in some way. And most people only share the best moments of their lives. If you need that to sink in, read it again. Social media feels like a private view of others’ lives. But everyone chooses what to share. And apps make it easier than ever to edit photos in just a few swipes. Even videos have been cut and edited to fit a certain narrative. A therapist once told me that the people who write the most lovey-dovey posts about their relationships online are often the same people messaging about needing couples’ counseling. So, what you see on social media is most likely not reality, and there’s a lot of freedom in recognizing that. Enjoy the platform for what it is, but don’t let anything you see online (or what other people are doing anywhere, for that matter) be a baseline for your own life. 
  • Limit your notifications. When I post something to Instagram, I’ve learned to either: only post when I’m not busy with work; silence or turn off my phone until I have free time, or turn off app notifications completely. Even if I see a really nice comment on a post I’ve made, I’ll become distracted by the positive emotions I feel. Instead, I’ll wait until I’m done with my workday before diving into comments. It also helps to recognize what sites are more triggering for you than others. For example, I can’t stay on Instagram or Facebook too long before it starts to affect me. But Reddit is a platform I can actually look at to read and enjoy. If certain platforms make you especially anxious or drained, limit them — or delete them altogether!
  • Be mindful of your emotional reactions. I used to scroll through my feeds anytime I was bored, only to find myself getting really anxious or angry. So, now, I regularly check in with myself when I’m on any social media platform. If I start to have strong emotional reactions, close out of the app and do something else. Even if my feelings are related to a just cause, I recognize that I’m not helping anyone by getting worked up and that I can take more productive actions offline.

Since recognizing how social media impacts my HSP brain and regulating my usage, I’ve experienced less stress and more peace, better self-esteem, and more focus on what matters to my life. Hopefully, the insights here help you, too.

Want to get one-on-one help from an HSP-knowledgeable therapist? We have personally used and recommend BetterHelp for therapy with real benefits for HSPs. Click here to learn more.

We receive compensation from BetterHelp when you use our referral link. We only recommend products when we believe in them.

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