Highly Sensitive Refuge
6 Ways to Handle Civil and Political Unrest

How to Handle Political & Civil Unrest as an HSP

Our emotions have been flooded with hate, negativity, and powerlessness — but this doesn’t mean we HSPs have to be overwhelmed. 

Content warning: This article contains references to political violence. 

A Capitol Hill policeman violently squashed between glass doors in Washington, D.C., a Congresswoman crouching on the floor with a gas mask, a Black man begging for his life while being crushed under the knee of a policeman. These are a few of the vivid images from the last year that play over and over in my head. 

And I am not the only American who is haunted by these images. 

Over the last year, our country has seen some dark days, pushing us to extraordinary limits with everything from politics and the COVID-19 pandemic to riots and a recession. Emotions are running high, and every day seems to bring some new horror or battle to be fought.

The movement to protect Black lives, police brutality and protests, chaos surrounding the 2020 presidential election, and the recent deadly riot on the nation’s Capitol have impacted everyone. As a nation, we have become further divided, and democracy as we knew it has been decimated. As individuals, we have been rocked to our very core as we struggle to make sense of it all and to find a path forward. 

But I’m not (just) a worried American. I’m also a highly sensitive person. And these events affect me differently. 

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are the 1 in 5 people born with the genes to be more physically and emotionally affected by their environment — and we have a strong reaction to violence or unrest. Our senses are quickly overloaded by gruesome images of violent protests, police brutality, and senseless deaths or the ghastly sounds of shouting, screaming, and gunshots. 

The events of the past year have only magnified that reaction.

Our emotions have been flooded with hate, negativity, and powerlessness — but this doesn’t mean we HSPs have to feel overwhelmed. There are tactics, techniques, and tools we can use to navigate the stormy waters of our whacky world. Here are some that have helped me get through the past year. 

6 Ways HSPs Can Handle Political Unrest and Violence

1. Know your triggers, like watching police brutality on the news.

While HSPs have common everyday triggers — like bright lights, loud noises, and violence — we each have unique triggers, too. For example, one of my triggers is the divisiveness that politics and civil unrest have caused (or highlighted) in the U.S. It reminds me of the constant chaos of my childhood and the heated “he said, she said” arguments that were rarely resolved. It sends my emotions into overdrive. 

So police brutality is one trigger I just can’t stomach. I understand that it exists, but I cannot watch it (on TV, on the internet, in news articles, you name it). I also cannot handle news anchors, politicians, pundits, and industry experts yelling at or talking over each other. I realize this is an idealistic notion, but can’t we all just get along? If not, maybe we could at least be more respectful of one another and listen to each other more, really listen. 

2. Limit media consumption — while social media used to be a way to catch up with friends, it’s often full of toxic energy these days.

The year 2020 was a trainwreck of a year, and 2021 does not seem much better so far. Everywhere we look, news seems to be worse and worse: whether it’s about the latest COVID-19 death tolls, videos of Black Americans being killed by the police, or scenes replayed again and again from the riot at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

I recommend you limit your media consumption, including social media, based on your tolerance level as an HSP. For me, that means not trolling Twitter while waiting for my pizza to be delivered. Instead, I have chosen several news sources that I trust (both national and local), and I get their news delivered to my email inbox each morning. I scan the headlines and read or watch if I want to know more. I also avoid watching the news before bed, and I make the weekends “media-free” days. 

3. Set boundaries within your relationships, especially since tensions are high these days.

As highly sensitive people, we often feel other people’s feelings. During disturbing, violent times such as these, emotions are running high, and we all have our own opinions. While people have an absolute right to share their thoughts, that doesn’t mean we need to listen to them when they are upsetting to us. I’m not suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand, however attractive of an idea that may be, but we HSPs must set boundaries with friends and family

In my case, my significant other and I have quite different political leanings. When the pandemic was well underway and contact with other friends and family was limited, I was his primary outlet for ranting and raving about riots, rallies, and protests (aside from Facebook). He was animated, loud, and opinionated, and we argued often. 

For the first time in our six-year relationship, I pointedly told him to stop talking and said I didn’t want to see him if our time together was going to devolve into discussions about political and societal issues and events. I said he was welcome to his opinions, but I wasn’t going to listen to them anymore. We are still together and now have calm, quiet, civil discussions. I drew my line in the sand and, to his credit, he respected it. I recommend you do the same — protect your HSP energy — whether it’s with a romantic partner, family member, friend, or coworker. 

In another example, a small group of friends and I host occasional happy hours via Zoom. We talk about almost every subject under the sun, but we have mutually agreed not to discuss politics. To us, it does not matter what side of the aisle we are on; we are human beings first, and we care about each other. Our relationships are more important than arguing over who is right or wrong. 

I’ve had other friends cull their social media friends’ lists to unfollow, unfriend, or block those whose opinions are so diametrically opposed to their own that the relationship becomes unsustainable when their values differ so significantly. 

Only you know what you can (and can’t) handle, but boundary-setting is imperative to keep your highly sensitive mental health in check.

4. Balance the good with the bad — after watching the news, watch a light-hearted movie.

This is a bit of a no-brainer, but amid chaos, it is easy to forget that balance is necessary. I achieve balance a few ways. When I choose to watch the evening news (usually one local and one national program), I follow it by watching a funny movie or TV program. My go-to “feel good” movies are Pitch Perfect 1, 2 and 3 and Mamma Mia! Don’t laugh, but the music, unlikely storylines, and the camaraderie of the casts improve my mood every single time! Without fail, I am dancing and singing along in no time. 

I’d recommend keeping a list of your favorite movies or shows handy, so when you’re feeling stressed, you are good to go. If you aren’t a list maker (say it isn’t so!), mark the shows you want to see on your favorite streaming service. They’ll remember them for you. 

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5.  Know when to “speak up,” even if that means in written form, like writing letters to elected officials.

The empathic nature of HSPs makes us natural activists and leaders, as Laura Brix Newbury wrote about for HighlySensitiveRefuge.com. Because we feel the pain of others in a unique way, this makes us compassionate and sensitive to the needs of others. We don’t have to be Black to be an ally to, and believer in, the Black Lives Matter movement. We can support police while demanding police reform. We don’t have to agree with all Democratic policies to support a change in power, and we can be Republicans without condoning the behavior of political leaders, rioters, and protesters. 

To be activists, we simply need to identify the issues for which we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone into the stretch zone. As Brix Newbury said in her activism piece, we don’t need a megaphone or a crowd to be an activist. We HSPs can identify other ways to be heard. She recommends writing letters to elected officials, writing articles, making donations, and being an informed voter, to name a few — and I agree.

6.  Practice self-care regularly — which means everything from practicing mindfulness to getting enough sleep each night.

Self-care is important for everyone, but particularly for HSPs — we sometimes get so caught up in overstimulation that we forget to take care of ourselves. In a time where our senses are constantly assaulted with bad news, self-care is vital for an HSP’s survival

Sleep is a great form of self-care, but it does not work for me when my emotions are on overdrive. However, escaping into a good book, walking, cuddling with my cats, and painting are favorites of mine. I have recently joined a weekly mindfulness group (via Zoom, of course) that has taught me techniques to calm and center myself when I am triggered or emotionally flooded. They include belly breathing, body scans, refocusing my thoughts, meditating, and developing a mantra to recite when I need to center myself, like, “I feel calm and safe.” 

Although we likely have more dark days ahead of us, using these tips and coping mechanisms can help us navigate them one day — and one crisis — at a time. And, remember: you are not alone. We are a community of strong, vital, intelligent HSPs, and we have what it takes to survive the darkness — and make a difference.

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