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Ah, social media. I have a love/hate relationship with it, as I suspect most people do. As an older millennial, I can still remember a time when we could get online and not worry about being bombarded with so much information and interactions all at once. I also remember how much easier it became to keep in touch with friends who moved away.

I was only 18 when MySpace was launched and it became the way we newly graduated high school seniors kept in touch with friends who went off to college. The following year, I was able to join Facebook (then called The Facebook) when my college was officially added to the list of colleges and universities with access to the site. Twitter came along a couple of years later. As you can see, I’ve grown into my adulthood alongside these social media giants, but it’s come at a price.

Ever since I started using social media, I’ve had a bit of trouble with these sites but I couldn’t pinpoint why. I often wanted to (and did at times!) delete my profiles because they became a source of anxiety for me. I loved being able to stay in touch and share things with friends so I didn’t know why I felt so stressed out simply logging on. After learning that I was a highly sensitive person (HSP), it all began making sense.

We HSPs tend to be easily overstimulated by intense environments and social media sites are definitely places where arguments and strong emotional responses are often played out in public. But my HSP condition ended up being my natural superpower to help me “read” the climate on social media, and know when to sign off. I gave myself boundaries that have helped me stay sane and healthy during turbulent times.

Of course, different people have different triggers and stress thresholds. But if, like me, you often find yourself feeling stressed or overwhelmed using social media, there are ways to help limit its negative effects. Here are some of the ways I’ve used my emotional radar to have a healthy relationship with social media.

Pay close attention to how you feel after using social media

I never thought I was affected by social media as much as I am until I noticed a pattern: I was always irritable after using it every day for weeks on end. When I found myself being snappish and short with loved ones—something that’s not typical for me—and saw that it happened right after logging off, I knew that I needed a break.

Feeling physically exhausted has also become a cue for me. I’ve noticed that my muscles tense up when I feel so overwhelmed by what’s going on on social media. If I’m in that state for days, I will eventually get so tired that I’ll fall asleep earlier or will be in need of frequent naps. Yes, emotional stress and negativity can be physically draining to an HSP. When I can’t figure out another possible cause for my fatigue, I’ll limit or give up social media for a couple of days and that usually does the trick.

Know your stress triggers

I avoid arguments like the plague. Some people are very passionate and love to argue, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We need people who believe in certain causes to advocate for them. However, these people can overwhelm me sometimes. These unintentional “emotional vampires” will drain me, emotionally and then physically, quickly. 

That’s why I’ve been careful about who I follow and with whom I engage on social media. And, as much as I dislike using them, the mute and block buttons on social media have also helped me stay sane during emotionally charged arguments, most of which I don’t invite.

Read the climate on (and off) social media before or as soon as you log in

When the political or cultural climate is intense offline, you know it’s going to be as intense or more online. Perhaps because people are more forthright and less inhibited when behind a keyboard than in person, social media seems to amplify everyone’s emotions and emotionally-charged opinions tenfold.

There’s nothing wrong with expressing yourself on these platforms, but we HSPs tend to absorb others’ emotions and that includes the impassioned and sometimes aggressiveness during times of unrest. During elections and times of social unrest, I either limit or completely abstain from social media usage until it seems like the initial explosion has died down and things can be discussed more rationally. If I see it’s still a hot topic, I’ll gauge how bad it still is and modify my social media usage as needed. I will also read only the first 5 or so tweets or posts on my timeline and I’ll log off if I see that it may trigger anything that will negatively impact me.

Remember: Taking a break from social media is possible

Ever since I began employing these boundaries, I’ve found myself overall happier and healthier. Even now, I will at times take long breaks from social media, sometimes days or weeks at a time, and it’s made a world of difference for my emotional, mental, and physical health.

Finding what’s right for you requires being in touch with how you personally respond to social media. Overall it’s about reaching a healthy level for you, since social media is also a source of goodness, once we learn how to minimize its negative effects.