Highly Sensitive Refuge
A woman waving a hand in frustration at her laptop, because the internet is stressing her out.

10 Tips for Surviving an Outrage-Fueled Internet as a Highly Sensitive Person

Like it or not, we’re all in a long-term relationship with the internet. Here’s how to make it a peaceful one.

While the internet can seem like a dream come true, it’s also a big, scary digital world, and most of us can’t afford to go completely off-the-grid to avoid it. On the one hand, I personally love doing research and exploring new ideas — and the internet is like an endless buffet for doing exactly that. It feeds my mind, and since I’m a journalist, I use it often when I’m hunting for new sources or digging up truths.

But as a highly sensitive person, the internet can also be… overwhelming. Exhausting, even. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are the twenty percent of the population who process information very deeply — which makes us both insightful and empathetic, but also easily overstimulated. As an HSP myself, there are days when I want nothing more than to chuck my phone and computer into a river and run away to a cabin in the woods, where the WiFi signal won’t be strong enough to load Wikipedia or Gmail even if I hadn’t gotten rid of all my devices. 

Escaping the hustle and bustle of modernity might be a common daydream for HSPs, but it’s not a practical one. Most of us need to go online for work, to stay connected with loved ones, and do basic things like banking and grocery shopping. 

10 Ways I Survive the Internet as an HSP

1. Know where to find “feed-your-soul” content — and go to it regularly.

Sometimes, even with the best intentions, you can wind up feeling completely burnt out just by spending a few hours online. When that happens, I like to turn to my collection of  pick-me-ups. Sometimes, that’s visiting YouTube for inspirational videos, like the pep talk from Kid President (an oldie but goodie). Other times, I might look at the work of some of my favorite cartoonists, like Sarah Scribbles or XKCD. Similarly, everyone has different taste in art, so take some time to find work that feels like a warm blanket. Have this “comfort food” bookmarked or saved somewhere, whether on a playlist or in a folder, so you can quickly turn to it when the internet — especially news — is just too much to handle.

2. Make sure your music is working for you, too.

I love listening to music while I work, but sometimes even my favorite albums can feel overwhelming when combined with everything else that’s happening on my screen. When I need a little more mental space to process whatever I’m reading, I turn to nature sounds or white noise tracks. My favorite is the Spotify playlist “Birds in the Forest.” It’s incredibly soothing and helps me concentrate when my attention feels scattered. (You can also try this HSP playlist curated by a fellow highly sensitive person!)

3. Turn down the lights — or your screen’s brightness.

Since we HSPs are sensitive to any stimuli, that includes the level of light our eyes are taking in. Computer and phone screens are perpetually glowing beacons, and plenty of people have written about how that blue light can throw off our circadian rhythm before bed. But it can also be hard on your eyes to look at a bright screen with small font all day. 

If you need the internet for work, try using apps like QuickShade to further refine the brightness of your computer screen. And if at all possible, stop looking at screens at least half an hour before bedtime! But if you must, make sure your screens are in night mode. These days, a lot of devices have dark mode capabilities and it’ll take you just a few minutes to adjust them. If you’re an Android person, you can also download an app like Dark Mode, and if you’re more an Apple person, you can try an app like NeuralCam NightMode.

4. Limit time on social media (and avoid doom-scrolling)…

We’ve all been there: one minute you’re checking Twitter for the latest news updates or to find something interesting to read, and the next thing you know, it’s been half an hour and you’re feeling shaky with the deluge of information. And it’s not just Twitter that pulls us into this endless vortex: it can happen on other social media platforms, on Reddit, and even on news websites. Yes, you’ve been trapped into doom-scrolling. 

The internet — and especially social media — is designed to suck you in. Once you know that, you can plan strategies for protecting your time and energy. Set a timer whenever you go on social media and don’t let yourself stay there for longer than that time. Or, if your willpower isn’t strong enough, you can install browser extensions that block certain websites after you’ve been on them for too long — check out Limit for Google Chrome and FocusMe for an app that works across browsers and devices. 

5. …But when you do go social media, make it meaningful.

Of course, social media isn’t inherently a bad thing: It can be a great way to stay in touch with friends, learn about new job opportunities, or simply socialize when you aren’t leaving the house. To get the most out of social media, invest in real relationships — use WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger to ask friends about their day or share memes or GIFs. Or, curate your Twitter account so that it shows a variety of perspectives and voices that you’re interested in hearing. For myself, I look for specific hashtags so that I can easily follow scientists, writers, and people in the chronically ill community. It has made my Twitter scrolling a lot less unpleasant. 

6. Be intentional with how much you share.

We’ve all heard it before, but it is largely true: The internet is forever. And as much as we may want to assume people are acting with the best intentions, that’s just not true of everyone. “Mobs” form quickly, and just about anyone can end up being doxed or harassed. So be mindful of what you’re putting online. Share only as much of yourself as you are comfortable with strangers knowing. It can be a wonderful experience to have an intimate connection with someone you’ve never met in person, but make sure those conversations happen privately. 

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7. Understand your capacity for news media and set boundaries.

Similarly to setting boundaries in how much you reveal about your personal life, you also need to understand your mental and emotional capacity for news, be it sad, dark, or uplifting. Because HSPs feel everything so deeply, even an innocuous story about the things scientists still don’t understand about pregnancy can lead to overstimulation (yes, this has happened to me). Once our brains get revved up, it can be very hard to calm them down. 

To protect myself from being emotionally overwhelmed by bad news or overstimulated by some exciting bit of research, I try not to read any news after 5 p.m. I also limit how much I read about particularly dark subjects, the coronavirus pandemic being one prime example. I do want to be informed, but I stick to things like daily newsletters rather than reading every single piece of news I come across. 

8. Take breaks.

This sounds obvious, though it can be hard to put into practice. But no matter what you’re doing online, whether it’s for work or for fun, be sure to spend some time away from your screen: go on a walk, play with your pet, play a board game, simply sit and stretch — the options are endless. You just need to be sure that you have those options in place so you don’t end up spending hours mindlessly going from one tab to the next online.

Need an extra-restorative break? Try a little time forest bathing.

9. Build “phone-free zones” in your life.

Smartphones are great in many ways, but they also mean you’re carrying a little computer with you wherever you go, which makes the temptation to hop online almost impossible to resist. At the park and see a cute dog? Post a picture to Instagram! Spending time with friends and you can’t remember the last movie some celebrity was in? Hop on Google! 

We’ve all done it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t break that permanent connection we seem to have with our phones. Create phone-free zones in your home and life. Maybe it’s a no-phones-in-the-bedroom rule, or no-phones-after-a-certain-time-of-night. Since the internet is built to make us reliant on it, we are the ones who have to set rules and boundaries for when it is allowed to engage us.

10. Acknowledge and embrace the internet’s limitations. 

In a lot of ways, the internet can be a sanctuary for HSPs: We are in control of the sites we visit, the time we spend on them, and the amount of information we absorb. It’s easy to think that if we curate our online experience perfectly, we’ll be in a safe bubble where we don’t have to deal with other people’s emotions. However…

That doesn’t mean being online is a substitute for life offline — we still need in-person experiences, whether it’s walking through a forest or having (socially distanced) dinner with friends. That’s just part of human psychology.

So it’s important to understand what the internet gives you, and what it doesn’t, as well as to understand how it can both help and harm you. The more you know about your relationship with the internet, the better you’ll be able to navigate it. 

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