My husband and I were almost asleep, savoring the last few minutes of mindless internet surfing before docking our phones on their chargers for the night, when the news came in.
“There was a huge shooting in Las Vegas at a concert,” my husband announced.
“When?” I asked.
“Just now. It’s crazy.”
“That’s terrible.” I finished the Instagram comment I was working on, plugged in my phone, and went to sleep.
In the morning, my social media feeds were full of prayers, tears, and pleas. Everyone was grieving, coming together to find solace in shared heartache and disbelief. A friend of mine who works on the Vegas strip checked in as “safe” on Facebook. A “News Top Stories” notification populated my screen: “A Las Vegas shooting that has killed at least 50 is the deadliest in modern U.S. history.”
I put my phone down and took a shower.
To a third party, I might have appeared cold, callous, and indifferent. More than fifty dead, and I don’t even give the story a second glance?
The truth is I’m the very opposite of callous. I don’t choose to ignore things like this because they don’t matter to me; I choose to ignore them because they matter so much. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), when I hear about tragedies like this, I begin imagining every terrible detail of what transpired — the faces of the victims in the throes of the moment and the unbearable pain of those who somehow made it out alive. My mind becomes a vortex of dark thoughts and fears; my heart races, I feel sick to my stomach, and I breathe shallowly. No matter what I’m doing for the next several days, weeks, and beyond, I can’t stop thinking about how fragile life is, how quickly everything can change, and how unfair events like this are.
As an HSP, Knowing Less Helps Me Get Through the Day
“When you read or hear about violent things, you have a strong negative reaction. Reading an article about animal abuse or a particularly brutal crime, you may get sick to your stomach and have to click away. You will probably struggle to get the grotesque images out of your mind for days or weeks afterward.”
This is why, when my husband broke the news of the incident to me right before bed, I knew that I couldn’t ask for more information. I know my brain, and I know it would go spiraling. The less I allow myself to know about incomprehensible situations like this, the better I’ll be able to get up in the morning and function as a wife, a mother, and a person.
Please don’t get me wrong. Emotionally distancing myself doesn’t mean I’m heartless. My thoughts are truly with those struggling right now, and I pray that in our lifetimes we see an end to senseless violence like this. It’s just that in order to get through the day and keep my anxiety from becoming too much, I have to distance myself a bit.
There’s a big part of me that resents my failure to cope with things that others can so capably address head on. I’m not proud of my duck-and-cover tactic because — at least in my own opinion — it seems like the epitome of selfishness.
But do I, as an HSP, have a choice in the matter? According to a 2014 study in Brain and Behavior, HSPs experience “more activity in regions of the brain associated with empathy and awareness.” And, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of the book, The Highly Sensitive Person, being an HSP is hard wired.
I Don’t Need to Dwell on Tragedies to Help
Because HSPs can’t change how we process stimuli, I want to believe that shutting myself off from the news actually is a kind of coping mechanism. However, I’ve had a hard time fully accepting this idea because most definitions of “coping” involve facing problems head on.
Then I had an epiphany: I don’t need to mentally and emotionally dwell on the horrible things in the world to help. In fact, those less fortunate than me don’t need my thoughts at all — they need my actions.
There are several ways HSPs can help the victims of horrible incidents like the Las Vegas shooting, recent hurricanes, and other tragedies — and still emotionally distance themselves from the things they might not be able to healthily process. Here are a few action items that don’t require do-gooders to be in the emotional thick of things to make a difference in the world:
- Donate blood. Though there have been reports that due to a record number of donations, no blood is currently needed specifically for the victims of the Las Vegas shootings, blood and platelet donations are always needed in other medical situations. Check out the American Red Cross for details.
- Use AmazonSmile to donate a percentage of your purchase price to charities of your choice.
- Host a phone drive or simply donate your old phone to help victims of domestic violence.
- Collect old books, audiobooks, and CDs to donate to your local library.
- Make blankets to donate to needy children through Project Linus.
- Volunteer in education, literacy, youth programs, and arts and culture. Because these programs are, in many ways, more proactive than reactive, you may see less of the trauma and suffering you are hoping to avoid, and instead be able to relish the positive emotions of getting involved and helping those less fortunate. Start by searching websites like VolunteerMatch or Skills for Change to find programs that appeal to you.
No matter what, know that there’s nothing wrong with you because you feel things deeply. Self-distancing when you need to protect your emotions doesn’t mean you don’t care.
Did you enjoy this article? Sign up for our newsletters to get more stories like this.