When I opened the paper last Tuesday and saw the news about the San Bernardino massacre, I physically recoiled. My stomach tightened. As I turned away and shut my eyes, a cry came out of me: a pained noise, no words.

Then, as questions crowded into my mind, I turned back to the newspaper and resumed reading. I searched for answers: who did this terrible thing? How could they have done it? Why?

And underneath all those questions, I felt an even deeper one: “Should I, as a highly sensitive person, be reading this at all?”

Wanting to know, and not wanting to know

As an HSP, I am much more subject to my environment than the other four-fifths of people. I feel things intensely and process them deeply. How can I satisfy my conscientious side–the part of me that cares deeply about the the world and its inhabitants, human and otherwise–while protecting myself from the real distress and over-arousal that I experience when I witness violence?

The answer to this question has a big effect on our quality of life as HSP’s, since news—frequently bad news—is ubiquitous today in multiple formats: print, online, radio, TV, cable. I took the risk of using a strong image here to point up how frequently we absorb this kind of information without clearly acknowledging how it affects us.

The dilemma of being sensitive in a violent world

I sometimes cry reading the news. That might even happen several times in a week. Much more often than that, I find myself feeling queasy, sickened, or heartbroken reading about the bombings, shootings, refugees, and homeless veterans. Or frustrated and discouraged, reading polarized political commentary. (Note: crying about things like that is not unusual for an HSP. But if you find yourself crying even more than usual, please take steps to make sure you are not depressed.)

But I am committed to staying informed on bigger world events. I want to know what is happening out there, while maintaining my sanity and peace of mind. Here are some questions I ponder as I seek to to do that. I invite you to ask them for yourself as you read.

What news format helps me stay current without getting too distressed?

This one is easy for me to answer: the print newspaper is my preferred medium for taking in news. I can read it any time, it goes into depth, which I value, and it is much more emotionally manageable for me to take in news in print than to take in violent footage on TV.

This habit is so ingrained that I watched no television news at all in the aftermath of 9/11. By sheer accident I happened to be near a TV at work at the moment the second plane hit, but that was the last live image I saw. I instinctively avoided the television for months, knowing the images would haunt my dreams. You may be exactly the opposite–haunted by written words. The important thing is to know yourself and what you need.

Are there times of day when I’m less affected by the news?

For me, yes: I’m much sturdier after a good morning’s work. This is a tough one for me because I’m always curious and I love to read, so I frequently give in to temptation and read the paper with breakfast. As I write this I realize I need to stop doing that, because reading about events like the San Bernardino massacre first thing in the day negatively impacts my whole sense of well-being.

I have chosen not to read breaking news on my smart phone or computer. Eventually I’m guessing I will be unable to get a print newspaper worth reading, and I’ll have to learn how to consume news mindfully online. But it is much, much easier to be choiceful about when I read, when there are no banners or headlines tempting me, or links designed to keep me surfing and reading.

Think about this for yourself. This is especially important if you read the news on your smart phone, which is right there, 24/7. Be very aware of the way the news affects your energy.

Am I being intentional about my motivation as I consume news?

Every day, I remind myself that networks and newspapers need to please their advertisers. They know that as a human being, I am wired to snap to attention around events that tap into my primal fears about security and safety. Unfortunately catastrophe sells. If I’m not careful, I end up reading from this scared place in myself.

To counteract this alarmist tendency, I consciously remind myself of reality. I am NOT in any kind of imminent danger. I don’t personally fear violence on a daily basis. I have money, food, a roof over my head, and a loving partner and family. I’m incredibly fortunate, and I want to hold on to that awareness, enabling me to take in the news as a concerned fellow citizen of the world.

I try to take advantage of my naturally thoughtful, observant nature and my attunement to subtlety to stay aware of the packaging and slant of the news I am consuming: not just the delivery within an article, but the emphasis on some kinds of topics and the omission of others (good news gets very short shrift.) All this makes it easier for me to stay current without getting too stressed.

Am I making time to process my reactions?

When I do feel helpless or overwhelmed by the sheer volume of violence and human misery in the news, I remind myself what I believe about individual agency. I believe that any time I make space for my reactions (or others’ reactions) and honor them, I contribute to positive change.

If everyone had the resources, willingness, and support to do that, the world would be radically different. So when I do have a reaction, I take time to process it, or make time later. Focusing is the best way I know to go beyond generic or intellectual guesses (as in, “Well of course it’s upsetting, people were shot”) to sense with compassionate exactness what is being touched in me in this moment.

The key is the word something: “There’s something about this headline that makes me flinch, pull back, and cry, ‘oh!'”

I invite the whole sense of that “something,” then I wait and see what comes. I sit with all the things I’m afraid will happen and that I do not want to happen.

When the news stresses me, can I reconnect to a bigger vision?

Once I’ve sensed all the things I’m not wanting to happen, I can take a final powerful step: I picture what I wish could be happening instead. What would a world look like, in which the people who did this terrible thing were so content and cared for that violence would never enter their minds? Where no one had to leave their home for fear of violence? How would I be feeling and acting in such a world?

This step is the antidote to feelings of hand-wringing distress and helplessness. When I hold a vision this way, it primes me to notice attitudes, actions, people, and organizations that are part of the vision. It motivates me to contribute, and it clarifies how that could look.

Please let me know how news consumption affects you, what works for you, and what doesn’t. We can all learn from each other.

References on high sensitivity:
Aron, Elaine (2010). Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person. New York: Routledge.
Aron, Elaine (1996). The Highly Sensitive Person. New York: Broadway Books.