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What It's Like to Be a 'Highly Sensitive Person' in the Time of COVID-19

It’s mid-afternoon and I’ve cried over relatively mundane things twice today. Chances are that I’ll cry again before the day is through.

This isn’t remotely new for me, but it’s been heightened in the time since the coronavirus (COVID-19) — the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system — outbreak became a pandemic. You see, I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP) — a personality trait and genetic difference found in roughly 15 to 20% of the population and characterized by becoming easily overwhelmed, high levels of emotional sensitivity and strong empathy, processing everything on a deeper level than those not wired in such a way.

I find it hard to absorb the news at the best of times. I’ll read or watch a piece on a disaster, or the selfishness of a politician, and either feel incensed into radical action or crushed by the weight of everything I’m feeling. I’m like an emotional sponge, absorbing the thoughts, fears and feelings of those around me and those directly in the firing lines, without meaning to do so.

Watching the coronavirus spread across the world has been harrowing for all of us. When it made its shift to epidemic levels, my sensitivity began to kick into motion. A lifetime of enjoying apocalypse fiction didn’t help, of course, but I began to feel, not simply imagine, what it might be like if it came to our shores, my town, my life. I saw the way it could touch the ones I love and potentially take them from me. But even then, it was nothing compared to the last week or so, as COVID-19 took on new levels of seriousness.

The coronavirus feels like the ultimate boogeyman — unseen, lurking just at the periphery of our vision, even as we begin to feel the effects. I’ve watched panicked shoppers go from hoarding toilet rolls and hand sanitizer to hoarding pet and baby food. I’ve felt the fear as, one-by-one, people made the decision to self-isolate. I’ve felt the sinking reality of my self-employed friends as they wonder where their next paycheck will come from, and worried right along side them, even while I’m relatively safe in my position as an editor here at The Mighty.

I shouldn’t feel this level of pain when I know I’m not in the most vulnerable group … but I’ve seen those who do, and before I even know it, I’ve absorbed that fear, that uncertainty, as surely as if I was staring into the eyes of the first horseman himself. And that’s the reality of this brave, new world, for people like me all over. We may not be the ones who are affected the most, but we feel your pain as if it were our own.

There are good sides to being an HSP, of course. I wouldn’t swap my empathy for anything, as empathy is (in my opinion) at the heart of what humanity should be. Empathy is what drives us to care for one another, even when other forces strive to drive us apart. But these are dark days, and I’m beginning to crumble under the collective weight of all these lost souls. At what point does humanity stop being a good thing?

In the early 17th century, John Donne wrote the famous line: “No man is an island.” It was meant as a reflection on the human need for community, a fact somewhat embodied in The Mighty itself, and how we do badly when isolated from others. That might be so, but in these days of social isolation, quarantine and heartache, is a different kind of isolation — an emotional isolation — necessary for some of us? Donne thought no man is an island, but sometimes, do we have to be?

If you, like I, are feeling the weight of the world right now, please know you aren’t alone. These are undoubtedly scary days, but there comes a point at which we need to practice self-care in the interest of our own mental health, and that’s OK. We sensitive people, we empaths and introverts, can only do so much before our own health begins to suffer under the weight of everything else. After all, a sponge can only hold so much water; before long, that water is going to leak out as it did for me today, in tears and panic attacks and the desire to isolate even further into emotional safety.

So turn off the news if it’s triggering for you. Stay off social media for a while if you’re finding it too hard to read yet another story about a local business in hard times, or a friend scared for their future. If it’s important, you’ll hear about it some way. If it isn’t, then it’ll still be there once you rest and recharge. We can still talk to friends — still help those small businesses and vulnerable people — but it’s OK to let others know you can’t talk about the current situation when it becomes too much to bear.

There are ways to cope as a highly sensitive person. We’ll get through this together, and we’ll do the best we can. For now, it’s OK to be an island, sometimes, in order to stay afloat.

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GettyImages photo via JORM SANGSORN