The Hazards of Being an Empath

therapist comforting patient

By Stacey Colino

Are you an empath? You might consider yourself an empathic person but there’s a difference between having empathy and being an empath (a highly sensitive person who easily absorbs other people’s feelings, energy and stress).

“Having empathy means your heart goes out to another person who’s experiencing joy or pain,” explains Judith Orloff, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of the book, The Empath’s Survival Guide. By contrast, “empaths actually feel other people’s emotions and physical symptoms in their bodies, without the usual defenses most people have.”

In a study at the McGill Centre for Research on Pain at McGill University in Montreal, researchers found that when people with the highest empathy scores were exposed to a heat stimulus after watching someone else experience the same uncomfortable stimulus, the subjects experienced greater physical sensations of pain than those in the low empathy group. “Empaths feel things first, then they think [about them], which is the opposite of how most people function,” Dr. Orloff says. “Empaths sense other people’s emotions in our bodies without the usual filters; we can hear what they don’t say.”

An estimated one in five people is considered highly sensitive, and many of these folks are empaths, too. Yet, being an empath is not a diagnosis found in the DSM-5, the consummate guide to psychiatric disorders, so “it’s often misdiagnosed as social anxiety,” Dr. Orloff says. “There are empaths with social anxiety but social anxiety is more a result than a cause of symptoms. In empaths, the brain’s mirror neuron system — a specialized group of cells that are responsible for compassion — are hyperactive.” As a result of this neuronal hyperactivity, empaths absorb other people’s feelings, energy and emotions into their own bodies. “It’s a different wiring of the neurological system,” Dr. Orloff says.

Being an empath certainly has its benefits, including greater intuition, compassion, creativity and a deeper connection with other people. But living in this state of high sensitivity also comes with its challenges, such as becoming easily overwhelmed, over-stimulated, or exhausted, or absorbing stress and negativity from others. Given these risks, it’s not surprising that empaths are particularly vulnerable to developing depression, anxiety, emotional burnout and addictions. Some empaths try to numb their sensitivities with alcohol, drugs, food, sex or shopping, Dr. Orloff notes. “It’s very common — being an empath is often a missing piece to addictions.”

If you’re an empath, one of the keys to protecting your physical and emotional well-being is to avoid absorbing other people’s stress and negative energy excessively. There are many different strategies that can help in this respect, Dr. Orloff says. “Your best bet is to experiment and see which ones work best for you.” Good ones to try:

  • Learn to set boundaries. If someone is draining your energy or emotional reserve, limit the amount of time you spend with him or her or keep the length of the conversation to a minimum. Remember that “No” is a complete sentence, Dr. Orloff says. So don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry but I don’t have the time or energy to talk right now,” or, “I’m not up for going out tonight; I’m too wiped out.” By doing this, “you really protect your energy so you don’t continue to give until you’re worn out,” Dr. Orloff says.
  • Question your emotions. When you feel a sudden shift in mood or the onset of emotional overload, ask yourself whether the new feeling is genuinely yours or rightfully belongs to a companion. “If you didn’t feel anxious, depressed, or exhausted before, most likely the discomfort you’re feeling now is at least partially coming from someone else,” Dr. Orloff says. Recognizing this can help dissipate the feelings you absorb from other people — or prevent them from having as deep or draining an impact as they might otherwise have.
  • Plan alone time. “Empaths need to spend time alone to regroup and center themselves,” Dr. Orloff says. The time can be spent sitting quietly, breathing slowly and deeply, meditating, or listening to soothing music. Keep in mind that immersing yourself in water — by taking an Epsom salt bath, sitting in a hot tub or going swimming can calm you physically and emotionally and help remove toxins from your body, Dr. Orloff says. With whatever solo activity you choose, the goal is to decrease external stimulation from other people and technology and reconnect with your inner sense of self.
  • Spent time in nature. “Being in a fresh, clean, green environment, as well as near water, clears negativity,” Dr. Orloff says. “It helps you shed other people’s energy and replenish your own.” To derive the maximum perks, use your senses to experience the sights, sounds, smells and physical sensations (of, say, the grass, sand, or soil) that are around you as fully as possible.
  • Create real or imagined distance. With people who regularly drain your energy, feel free to limit physical contact, Dr. Orloff suggests. “Energy is transferred through touch, so if you’re wary of taking on another person’s stress, you can choose to send them love from a physical distance.” In other words, giving hugs, holding hands and engaging in other forms of touch is a choice, and it’s your prerogative to step away from someone whose emotional energy is disturbing you.

Similarly, you can use your visualization powers to separate yourself from other people’s toxic emotions, Dr. Orloff notes. You might imagine an invisible shield going up around you that prevents other people’s negative emotions from reaching you. Or, you could picture an elastic band extending from your torso to the other person’s, and imagine cutting that band to prevent his or her anxiety or anger from becoming yours. In both instances, you’ll remain physically present with the other person but you’ll be taking care of your own emotional needs.

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