The Anxious Empath: Anxiety and Other People's Feelings
Empaths are often anxious. Empathy is described as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. All humans have the ability to empathize in moments of tragedy, even if they have not experienced a similar situation. However, empathy is an innate trait that is more acutely developed in certain members of the population (Intense Anxiety And The Highly Sensitive Person). Empaths are individuals who are unconsciously affected by other people’s moods, desires, thoughts, and energies. They can, literally, feel the emotions of others in their bodies and attempt to carry these emotions on their shoulders without ever being asked. It's for this reason that there are often anxious empaths.
The Trouble with Being an Anxious Empath
It sounds good in theory; empaths are caring, understanding, and great listeners. But they are often focused outward on others’ feelings, rather than on themselves. As an empath, you may struggle to comprehend suffering in the world and dream about fixing all of the world’s problems.
Quite a large task, right?
Being this in tune with others seems like a gift, but empaths are saddled with the burden of their own emotions as well as that of those around them. They feel a pull towards fixing, meddling, and emotional understanding; a call that often cannot be ignored.
The Empath's Anxiety
Empaths are scientifically proven to be more susceptible to anxiety, social anxiety, and depression. A study published in the Journal of Psychiatry indicates that:
Individuals with social phobia (SP) show sensitivity and attentiveness to other people’s states of mind.
Meaning that individuals who suffer from social anxiety may also be extremely empathetic and susceptible to the feelings of others. This study concludes that:
. . . socially anxious individuals may demonstrate a unique social-cognitive abilities profile with elevated cognitive empathy tendencies and high accuracy in affective mental state attributions.
This hypersensitivity to emotions also causes empaths to become ill and suffer from stress, experience burnout in the workplace, and suffer from physical pain more often than others (Are You Too Sensitive? Try These Tips).
Life As an Empath
Empaths are often described as sensitive. They cry during movies, commercials, weddings, and funerals; I know these feelings all too well. I have attended parties where someone isn’t having a good time or the hostess was feeling overwhelmed, these minute situations have inhibited me from enjoying myself until all crises have been remedied and everyone is enjoying themselves. Empaths are extremely in tune with everyone's emotions, but, sometimes, empathy becomes a burden too big for the anxious to carry. It is so important to learn how to adequately manage your feelings of empathy in order to prevent compassion fatigue and other symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Managing Your Anxiety and Empathy
1. Know Your Emotional Limits
Empaths are intuitive healers and people are often drawn to them for this reason. This makes setting functional boundaries so important. Learn the limits of your abilities; you cannot carry the world on your shoulders and that is okay.
2. Recognize New Feelings
Take note of the way different people make you feel -- this is meaningful. Are you nervous? Do you feel deep sadness? Learning how the feelings of others manifest in your body will allow you to better manage the multitude of emotions you may experience around other individuals (The Importance of Emotional Regulation in PTSD Recovery).
3. Find an Outlet
Empaths normally push their feelings aside in an attempt to help others. Emotions always find a way out in the body. Make it a point to develop a routine or habit that you enjoy and one that helps you express yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup (Why Self-Care is Important for Your Physical and Mental Health).
4. Use Grounding Techniques
Whenever emotions become too strong, look around the room to ground yourself. Find an object, not a person, to study and focus on. Being aware of its features can ground you in the moment and bring your outside of the intense feelings happening in your body (Top 21 Anxiety Grounding Techniques).
Make Empathy A Gift By Managing Anxiety
Being an extremely empathetic individual, especially an anxious empath, can often feel like a burden. You may feel as if your nerves are literally on fire when you walk into new situations or when you watch the news. Your anxiety may even trick you into thinking you have to fix the entire world (Anxiety Affects Our Perspective). This can cause symptoms like fatigue and digestive disorders, or the many other symptoms empaths face.
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Hawkins, W. (2016, February 10). The Anxious Empath: Anxiety and Other People's Feelings, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, March 30 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2016/02/the-anxious-empath
Author: Whitney Hawkins
Hi Laura, that's a really good question. They're very closely intertwined.
Codependence is an agreement between people to stay locked in unconscious patterns. It can occur when one person's behavior is determined by another's, when one relies on the other to maintain destructive behavior, and when you sacrifice yourself for others. A codependent person has a pattern of relying on another to meet his/her emotional needs.
The author says that empaths "attempt to carry these emotions on their shoulders without ever being asked". This is indicative of an unconscious agreement, which is one aspect of codependence. But I'd say that the anxious empath's proclivity to carry the burden of another doesn't necessarily equate to a being codependent. That said, if the anxious empath has a proclivity to enter into relationships with narcissists and carry the burdens of the narcissist (to meet some unconscious need of his/her own), then perhaps the anxious empath could be codependent. In this way, the anxious empath and narcissist are locked in an unconscious, destructive pattern.
This is not a hard and fast explanation, but simply my take on these terms from the knowledge I have.
I am an extreme empath and was in treatment for codependency (CoDA and Al Anon) for five years. It helped immensely. I recently heard the difference between being codependent and empathic is boundaries. I strongly agree and this is the best definition I have ever heard. I no longer meet the qualities of codependency but am I am more empathic than ever. The difference is, I have walked away from a number of people who couldn't or wouldn't respect my boundaries (all were narcissists). About 50% of the people I approached about my new boundaries once I built up my self-esteem and took time away to heal myself came around and treat me much differently today. They know now that I have certain needs in terms of space, privacy, environment, etc. that I need to be met in my environments and relationships in order for me to stay in them and they respect these boundaries. These people have gone through personal transformations of their own as a result of me transforming. It really has been the only way that I've been able to remain in these relationships or had the ability to go back. Otherwise, it wouldn't be equal or fair to me and I don't stay in that type of relationship any longer. I hope this helps someone! I am currently writing a book on Empaths and another on codependency.
Jaime, that is welly put. That was me to a tee. I didn't realize how important boundaries actually were, because we spend such little time on thinking we need to establish boundaries with people we care about, as we would never intentionally take advantage of someone, and unfortunately, learning the hard way, many others do not think twice about doing that to us. By learning to say no, and setting boundaries in respect to how we allow people to treat us, and also knowing that a give and take in any relationship is a must, transformed my life tremendously. It saved me actually, because I may still be in the same unhealthy pattern of allowing negative and toxic relationships to appear in my life if I hadn't realized its ok to say no and put myself first if the same is not being reciprocated. Having my daughter literally saved my life, and woke me up to a lot of things I was doing and allowing as an empath. It also forced me to re-evaluate my life and some of the people I allowed in it, to my own detriment. I had to finally wake up, not only for my sake, but most importantly to my daughters, as now she was all that mattered and came before and above anyone and everything else.
So I have a question. I've been looking around for years and still cannot find an answer. WHAT AM I? Everything I read is an Empath takes or reads or feels others emotions. Etc. But I mean I kind of do this as well but I can turn that part off along with all of my emotions. But back to my real statement, when I walk into a room the people around me empaths or not(normal people) have their emotions changed by mine, moreover in empaths than others. And I cannot find anyone else having this problem is it's driving me nuts. Someone please help!
Hi Zac, this is an interesting question you're asking. If I understand what you're saying, you feel you can turn your own empathy on or off, but others are deeply affected by your energy/mood/emotions. Is that accurate? I'm curious as to how you know they are changed? Are people telling you this? Generally speaking, emotions can be "contagious". We have a network of "mirror neurons" in our brains. These mirror neurons signal what someone else is feeling based on facial expressions, body language, and reflexes. Not only do we attune to what is happening with another, but we sometimes feel the same emotions within ourselves. I think that you get that empaths are more inclined to what others feel. But your question is more about "what you are". I can't answer that. All I can say is that as an empath, some people have an energy that is just stronger in some way. If it's an energy that is intense and frenetic, I might feel tense. Likewise, I'm also aware and affected by energy that feels loving, warm, and grounding. Feel free to elaborate a bit more on your experience!
I found that happens to me as well and often ever since I found a way to 'clear' the negative reserves of energy that I'm prone to pick up. But I cannot tell you how many times I've been told that 'I lift people's spirits up' or can visibly 'brighten up' someone else's mood which makes me so so happy! Zach, try to channel the good energy and project that as you mingle among the people; this could be a unique gift that some of us have!
i get this. zac is alpha. when i am around what i call alphas, i can feel the strong energy come from them. i can spot a war vet in seconds in a room. the have an energy no one else has. it is strong, almost intimidating. maybe others are feeling you because you "have a strong presence" i feel this, i thought i was paranoid, until i looked up and sure enougn, many eyes were on me. i have this presence also. sucks cause hate attention. attention creates more anxiety.
I have found I mirror peoples feelings,behaviors and emotions back to them.Some people do not like me or feel uncomfortable around me for this reason
I was told when I was 19 that I have social anxiety I've always had trouble with the fear of judgment I still struggle everyday with this how ever the more I learn about empathy I believe that my anxiety is based upon my own empathy for example my grandma's boyfriend has bad OCD and when ever he walks into the same room as me I get so anxious that I became unable to think of anything but why he's upset my husband and I will be having a great time and put of no where i have this deep feeling something is on his mind or his mood will change and I ask repeatedly if he's okay or what's wrong and me asking over and overtakes him upset but I can feel it and then when he tells me nothing's wrong it makes me feel worse because I know he's lying can I please get others opinion on if I have anxiety or if I maybe an empath
Britney, I have discovered Dr. Judith Orloff to have answers and amazing info and resources on " empaths" . Her books and website have been invaluable to me in trying to understand the exact feelings and emotions you are experiencing! Good luck, and be kind to youself!
I realate to all that its becoming more and more harder for me going in public cuz most of tje times i know what the other person is feeling i become meaner to the mean person its hard to control my emotions for me day by day a
One of the reasons empathy experience anxiety is because we can't talk about what we are perceiving to people around us. Most of the time we have to keep quiet about the sensations we feel because for the most part Empathy is not a social norm that is out in the open. We can feel like freaks while everyone is going on with their lives around us, not feeling and knowing the things we feel and know. It can be overwhelming and depressing to be surrounded by a population that seems to be half-awake while we are so sensitive. We have to choose very carefully who we can and can't reveal our truth to, which constrains us socially and expressively. I feel like I spend a lot of time concealing who I really am and that makes me feel very anxious a lot of the time.
Omg omg first I feel I should say sorry to you a million times because I feel I want to help you isn't that us? Omg im old. I've been like this almost all my life. I identify with you. It even made me cry. But a joyful cry. Because we do feel like we are alone on this. Nobody understands. We do feel like freaks most times. We cannot explain it half the time. We cannot reveal it to others because we'll be looked at, as dumb annoyances. It's awful sometimes. But you know, what's helped me throughout the years? Being a Latina, being raised in a tough neighbourhood. My mom. Who was always a tough, but good hearted person. Environmental Inflluences. My mom & Dads characteristic traits. Now, I want to find the answer to this, in a more deep and educational way. Good luck to you. I have millions of stories to tell about my empathy. LoL.
I've only recently come to terms of me being an empath and know now this is why I feel the way I do a lot of the time. I first heard of empaths when my friend researched a lot of things on religion, spirituality etc. And claimed that she was all off that and I were nothing and did not know of the sort cut a long story short I found out after years that friend to be narcissistic. Since the age of 9 I was depressed and thought I was weird I did not like myself hated myself but still loved others. Put myself in horrible situations for the needs of others. I have a lifelong illness now I'm only 29 I've always felt like I'm being attack/tested. Although now I know I'm an empath and that's why I feel so deeply for others. How do I make it stop and learn to love myself and take care of myself?
Hi Marcia, I can certainly relate to your experience of putting others first and then feeling depressed. The one question I ask myself when I feel I'm being tested and when I'm feeling overwhelmed from feeling so deeply is: "What is there to learn here really?" I find that this question usually empowers me to recognize my own needs and what needs adjustment. Sometimes my answer is better self-care. Sometimes it's setting boundaries. Many different answers arise, but when we feel like we're being tested, often times we are. We're being tested to develop more compassion for ourselves or others, and to grow. Here's another article you might find useful: https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/buildingselfesteem/2017/09/respect-yourself-how-to-com…
Wow! What a wonderful article! I have been grappling with getting caught in the loop when I don't express my emotion! Very cool insight!!
This is an absolutely ruining my life and every relationship I have ever had I cannot go out in public I am constantly having anxiety I can't go shopping I can't be around crowds people. I break down my emotions are all over the place I feel everything way too much and I can't control it I feel like I'm sinking I feel sick to my stomach constantly I seek therapy and psychiatry for help but nothing has changed in the over 20-something years but I haven't been dealinh with this I don't consider it a blessing or a gift I feel as though I am condemned and cursed
Rachael, I am so sorry you're struggling with this. There are certainly pros and cons to feeling everything so deeply. It sounds like you may be having a difficult time separating your feelings from those of the people around you. This can cause severe compassion fatigue (https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/stress/caregiver-stress-compassion-fatigue/) and lead to some of the experiences you describe above. I'm glad you're seeking professional help. Have you tried any of these grounding techniques? They may help, too. http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2010/09/top-21-anxiety-grounding-techni…
Rachel... Hi :) I'm curious if maybe you have a partner or person close to you that is draining you. You need to have a safe haven. An environment to yourself. A place that brings you peace and gives you the opportunity to refill your giving cup. If you are living on empty.. This may explain why you are viewing it as a curse.
Your not! Your not condemned! I thought all those thoughts and more! I actually thought I was schizophrenic. I went beyond the thought of it and went for Brain cognitive thinking tests! Yes I did! I went to social anxiety groups! I look back at that and say, what the hell was I thinking?!!!! I'm Catholic Christian, my God is Good all the times. All my life, but I didn't trust him enough I guess. I do now. But I, still struggle. I still feel other people's thoughts, emotions, feelings. I catch myself. But I don't know what to do, and it leaves me feeling, moody and unhappy. When in reality, im really a spunky funloving person! I tell you what I'm telling myself! Read into self-help books! Find someone who will listen to you. Good luck to us both! But most of all feel better about your existence!
This is a very good article, I always wondered and thought they have a connection.
In reading about anxious empath has open my heart and soul in an understanding I'm not crazy not unwell.. Bringing tears to my eyes today as I was unaware of what was wrong with me. Nailing every word I read just wow .thanks
Thank you Whitney, reading your description of the anxious empath was like reading a biography of the last few years of my life. I take some comfort in discovering that what I've been going through is common enough to match your synopsis so perfectly.
Couldnt have said it better myself.
Weill said. I am psychologist by profession and an empath by nature. I learned the hard way to take care of myself first and govern my emotions. when I am interacting with others.. But I would not give up being an empath is spite of the pain it has caused. The feeling of being genuinely connected to another human being is very precious.
I wish I knew how to do this......
I'm exhausted and starting to.lose it
I think my 10 yr old us an empath. He has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety (more the latter). He can not go to crowded places, he becomes overwhelmed. He has break downs. And I have always noticed how the mood of other affects him. Please, we need help. Life is becoming so difficult for him
Angelique, sorry for the delayed response. I'm a new writer at HealthyPlace and saw your comment. First, the fact that you can tune into your son's experience is one of the biggest supports he can have. If he has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I imagine you are already working with a doctor and/or therapist. I suggest addressing your concerns with the professionals supporting you. But you could also try some other grounding techniques. Here's an article with suggestions: https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2010/09/top-21-anxiety-grounding-techn…. Not all of the suggestions in the article are relevant to children, but it will give you some creative ideas. Anything you are able to do to help him connect with his sensory experience in a calm environment is helpful. When he is feeling overload, he'll be able to draw upon those skills better. Also, teaching him self-care now is most important. Think about what calms him and what makes him feel good. As an empath with anxiety myself, I've found that even if I'm absorbing pain and suffering from the world around me, releasing it is the the most important thing I can do. I hope this helps.