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Do Election Years Plague You? You Might Be a Highly Sensitive Person— And That’s Actually a Good Thing

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June 26, 2024
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Aaron Gilbert

It’s safe to say everyone feels the strain of election years these days. But if you dread an existential spiral every four years, if you hate how much you absorb the relational tensions from opposing political views, and if you feel the severity of every hot-button issue deep in your bones, you might be a highly sensitive person (HSP).

As a therapist, it’s impossible to ignore the growing impact of politics on mental health. It’s to the point where it comes up more often than not with my patients, which I couldn’t have said 10 years ago. Still, there are those who find election years especially exhausting, and many don’t even realize how much more intense their experience is compared to others.

For example, not everyone gets sweaty palms watching the presidential debates because they feel so nervous for the debaters. When any political topic is brought up in casual conversation, most people don’t suddenly become consumed by the potential emotions of everyone in the conversation, urgently trying to help them all feel safe and comfortable. And most people don’t get overwhelmed by a single headline, thinking of all the possible ramifications that could follow three generations from now. But this level of intensity is as natural as breathing for HSPs.

What is a Highly Sensitive Person?

Highly sensitive people (HSPs) have a more sensitive nervous system than the general population. Studies indicate anywhere from 15–30% of the population is highly sensitive, and fMRI scans show differences in brain responses to sensory and information stimuli in HSPs versus people with less sensitive nervous systems.

In short, HSPs take in more information, process it more deeply, and feel it more intensely than those with less sensitive nervous systems.

Dr. Elaine Aron is the pioneering researcher who first outlined the trait of high sensitivity. She identified four defining factors of the trait, often referred to by the acronym DOES.

Four Defining Factors of HSPs:

  1. Depth of Processing — From sensory inputs (lights, noises, smells) to someone’s body language or the latest headline, HSPs process all sorts of information more deeply and thoroughly than others.
  2. Overstimulation — Because HSPs can’t help but notice anything and everything more closely and intensely than others, overstimulation is a natural consequence. HSPs get overstimulated and overwhelmed more easily and frequently than less-sensitive people.
  3. Empathy/Emotional Responsiveness — HSPs are more naturally empathic and are more emotionally responsive than other people. They can’t help but connect with how others are feeling, and their emotional responsiveness is more sensitive to their own emotions as well as others’.
  4. Sensitivity to Subtleties — HSPs pick up on all the little things more than others tend to. HSPs not only notice the little things others miss, but they also tend to have stronger reactions to those things that everyone else can blissfully ignore.

So if election years plague you, it might have more to do with your nervous system than anything else, even as intense as election cycles have become.

Why Are Election Years So Hard for HSPs?

Many HSPs feel ashamed by how tempted they are to bury their heads in the sand every election cycle, but they find their attempts to stay engaged excruciating. They don’t understand why they struggle to cope while everyone else can have a tense debate about hot-button issues and then carry on as if everything is fine. In light of the four descriptors of the trait of high sensitivity, here are just a few examples of what makes election years so hard for HSPs:

  • Empathy overload — Election years encourage everyone to speak up about what matters to them and the hardships they face. HSPs empathize easily with just about anyone, regardless of whether or not they can relate to their experience, which results in a near-constant empathy overload.
  • Intense emotions — HSPs not only have intense experiences of their own feelings, but they also absorb others’ emotions deeply. With everyone’s emotions running high during an election year, HSPs can struggle with unyielding, intense emotionality to the point of exhaustion.
  • Increased social tensions — HSPs often avoid conflict because of their heightened experience of it. Election years always bring acute social tensions to the forefront of every headline and infiltrate daily conversations with more prevalence than usual. HSPs feel every last ounce of the constant social tensions during election years, making nearly all social interactions a drain on their nerves.
  • Deep concern for societal issues — HSPs genuinely care about the societal issues on the line of every election. Their empathy paired with a strong sense of justice makes every issue that much more important and urgent. This can cause HSPs to struggle with anxiety and a disproportionate sense of responsibility to make an impact during election years.

Tips for Taking Care of Yourself This Election Year

If you struggle with election years, rest assured there is nothing wrong with you. You, like most highly sensitive people, just experience election years more intensely than most, and you need to care for your self in order to practice the community engagement that matters to you.

Research shows that when HSPs understand their sensitivities, they can better care for themselves and engage more effectively in the world while protecting their well-being. Here are a few tips to help you take care of yourself this election year:

1. Have a media consumption strategy.

While many admonish the public to ‘not look away’ from tragedies and injustices, HSPs are often so deeply connected to the issue at hand that they don’t have to see the terrible imagery that accompanies the headline. In fact, they likely need to look away in order to not spiral into an abyss of empathetic emotionality and despair.

So, as a highly sensitive person, it’s important to be smart about your media consumption. You can decide to only check in on the news once or twice a day, and be choosey about the stories you consume. You can stay in the know about what is happening without reading every gory detail or watching every disturbing video. You can trust that your finely attuned empathy will give you all the concern you need without subjecting yourself to details that will affect you more deeply than others.

2. Draw strict social boundaries around political topics.

Highly sensitive people can struggle with boundaries in general, often due to their high empathy, conflict avoidance, and people-pleasing tendencies. When it comes to political conversations in daily interactions, strict boundaries are necessary to help HSPs protect their own well-being.

This can be highly customized to your unique needs and comfort levels, and can be tailored to different people in different environments. Here are some handy phrases to help you bow out of a political debate:

  • “That’s a big topic, and I don’t have the capacity to discuss it right now.”
  • “I’m avoiding political conversations for the sake of my sanity right now.”
  • “Let’s save this topic for another time, I’d rather hear about how you’ve been doing.”

3. Prioritize your self-care practices and keep doing what you enjoy.

Election years can leave HSPs feeling like far too much is on the line to let themselves enjoy daily life, but that simply isn’t true. Even if you are actively engaged in political advocacy, everyone needs a break to avoid getting burned out.

Instead, prioritize the things you enjoy in life so that you have the energy and motivation you need to keep working toward the changes you want to see in the world.

4. Harness your sensitivity wisely for sustainable impact.

Being highly sensitive doesn’t mean you should sit out of elections. In fact, your deeply processing, highly empathetic mind has a crucial part to play in politics.

As an HSP, you see injustices clearly, you think through proposed policies thoroughly, and you care deeply about a better world for all. The best way to harness all of these strengths during election years is by nourishing your sensitivity day in and day out. When you can practice the boundaries you need and the self-care habits that restore you, you’ll be able to engage in the election to the best of your abilities, with your well-being intact.

Dr. Aron describes HSPs as sage advisors for their communities thanks to how much they pick up on, how deeply they process, and how measured they are in their responses. That sounds like just the sort of thing we need most during an election year.

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