Empathy and compassion are highly desirable traits in others; you could make the argument that the world would be a much better place if there were more of these around.
While being empathetic means you can relate to another’s experience, a true empath is one who can literally feel others’ emotions and physical sensations.
There are two types of empaths: cognitive and affected (or “emotional” empath). Cognitive empaths can perceive and understand the emotions in others; affected empaths feel others’ emotions.
Before you say “that’s a lot of nonsense”, there is scientific evidence to support the perceptions of being an empath.
For example, a study at Monash University examined the brains of empaths. Researchers found that there are differences in grey matter density in certain areas of empaths’ brains.
The differences were so conspicuous, they were able to distinguish between those with cognitive empathy (denser grey matter in the midcingulate cortex and adjacent dorsomedial prefrontal cortex) and those with affected empathy (denser grey matter in the insula cortex).
“Taken together, these results provide validation for empathy being a multi-component construct, suggesting that affective and cognitive empathy are differentially represented in brain morphometry as well as providing convergent evidence for empathy being represented by different neural and structural correlates.” (1)
Furthermore, a 2014 study looked at neural activity in empaths’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In response to controlled stimuli, areas of subjects’ brains involved in awareness, attention, action planning, integration of sensory information, emotional understanding, and empathy became highly activated. (2)
Pros and Cons of Being an Empath
Our bodies are electric. The brain and heart put out especially strong electromagnetic fields.
Empaths are very sensitive to these frequencies and readily pick up the thoughts and emotions of others. For some, this extends to other living things and even places and inanimate objects. (3, 4)
Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which two or more senses are activated in response to a stimulus-such as tasting words or hearing color. Some empaths experience “mirror-touch synesthesia”, in which they feel, see, touch, taste, hear, or smell what others do. (5)
Empaths sense strong emotions and feel pain in others by virtue of very keen cognitive abilities and a different neural construct and process than non-empaths. (6)
Common traits of an empath include:
- highly sensitive
- absorb others’ emotions
- highly intuitive
- needs time alone
- overwhelmed in intimate relationships
- close connection to Nature
- highly-tuned senses
- open-hearted, often giving until it hurts.
Watch the video below for how to identify a highly-sensitive person or empath.
Empaths are highly sensitive people who can read and absorb other people’s emotions, thoughts, and energies. You can see how being an empath can be emotionally and physically draining.
Empaths often find themselves suffering from various mental, emotional, and physical distresses as the result of receiving so much sensory stimuli from multiple sources. Among those frequently experienced:
- anxiety, panic attacks
- chronic fatigue
- binging (food, drugs/alcohol, sex, television)
- insomnia or disrupted sleep
- body aches
- digestive issues
- weight gain or loss
- adrenal fatigue.
The most serious of these (and the root cause of some of the other symptoms listed) is adrenal fatigue. The adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys secrete cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline, and other hormones as a response to stress, among other things.
While some stress is necessary to function and survive, chronic stress that empaths sometimes experience can cause an over-production of cortisol. These stress hormones begin a chain reaction of hormone production in the thyroid, pancreas, and sexual organs, thereby affecting neurotransmitters.
Frequent stress can push the body’s ability to manage the continual hormonal onslaught. If left unaddressed, adrenal fatigue can progress to adrenal insufficiency, in which the body doesn’t produce enough hormones to maintain balance.
Some members of the Western medical community deny that adrenal fatigue is a true medical diagnosis.
Anyone who experiences it will argue otherwise. Regardless of what label you may use to identify the condition, adrenal fatigue manifests in discrete symptoms, including all of those mentioned above specific to empaths, plus:
- low blood pressure
- loss of appetite
- muscle weakness
- brain fog
- low libido
- nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- hyperpigmentation of the skin. (7)
Judith Orloff, MD is a Board-certified psychiatrist at the University of California at Los Angeles, best-selling author, and frequent contributor to Psychology Today. Here’s what she had to say about the Western medical community’s conventional wisdom regarding adrenal fatigue:
“…[there exists a] very real situation of empathic illnesses where empaths literally take on the stress and symptoms of others. Unfortunately, conventional medicine doesn’t have a context with which to understand this and many empaths are left in the lurch or misdiagnosed. Because empaths can be emotional sponges and take on the literal symptoms of others, it adds to their stress levels and leaves them more vulnerable to adrenal fatigue.” (8)
Watch the video below by Eric Berg, DC for more information about adrenal fatigue and common indicators of adrenal dysfunction. You can also take this simple eye reaction test at home to see if your adrenal glands are over-taxed .
Empath’s Guide to Addressing Adrenal Fatigue and General Energy Maintenance
A highly sensitive person has to be especially careful and mindful of her/his body, mind, and spirit in order to stay healthy and avoid the negative consequences of being an empath.
It’s sometimes hard to separate others’ emotions and energies from your own. While this can have a very pleasurable up-side, the down-side can genuinely impact an empath’s long-term health. Following are some tips that may help keep the up-side up.
1. Establish boundaries in relationships.
The personality traits of an empath make them exceptionally giving, compassionate, understanding, accepting, and forgiving. There are plenty of people who would take advantage of those traits. Be yourself but don’t be a doormat.
2. Improve your diet.
What you eat directly affects everything that goes on in your body. Stress can disrupt your endocrine system so it’s particularly important to eat well.
Eat regularly throughout the day to keep blood sugar levels (and associated insulin levels) stable. Make sure to drink enough water, as dehydration can put stress on the adrenals.
- all fast, fried, and processed foods
- refined sugar and artificial sweeteners
- white flour
- vegetable oils.
Add or increase:
- leafy greens and a variety of colorful vegetables
- legumes and nuts
- fatty fish (for the omega-3 fatty acids)
- replace table salt with Himalayan or sea salt (in moderation) for the intrinsic minerals
- fruits with lower fructose content (berries, peach, citrus, honeydew melon, avocado)
- healthy fats (e.g., olive, coconut, and sesame oils)
- whole grains.
Empaths are constantly inundated with external stimuli that can become overwhelming. Many are natural introverts and enjoy spending time alone.
Meditation is a simple way for anyone to reduce stress and ground oneself, releasing everyday concerns and any internalized negative energy. Try to take ten minutes at the end of the day in a quiet room to breathe deeply and center yourself.
4. Turn to Nature.
Empaths need quiet space. Surrounding yourself with the natural world, devoid of pollution of all kinds, allows you to reconnect with the whole of yourself: body, mind, and spirit. It’s at once calming and invigorating.
Regularly take outdoor walks or sit outside and close your eyes to take in the soothing sounds and smells of Nature. The renewal of being a part of something real and larger than yourself, without the demands of others, promotes good mental health and reduces stress.
5. Rest as much as you feel you need.
Pushing yourself to do more and to be more taxes your adrenals and will come back to bite you. Cat naps during the day can be re-energizing.
Go to bed when you’re tired at night; don’t push yourself to do one more thing-there’s virtually nothing that can’t wait. Become an efficient time manager so your daily tasks aren’t a source of regular stress.
6. Exercise regularly.
If you have adrenal fatigue, high-intensity work-outs can be replaced with low-impact and resistance exercise to reduce the stress put on the body.
Aerobic exercise is critical for every metabolic function but don’t overdo it-keep vigorous work-outs to a couple of times a week until your hormones are back in balance.
7. Get proper nutrition for adrenal support.
A healthy diet of fresh, whole, organic foods is a given. Certain nutrients and plants have been found specifically supportive of adrenal health. It’s best to eat whole foods and fresh/dried herbs rather than supplements:
- Korean/Panax ginseng
- Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus, Acanthopanax senticosus, or Ciwujia)
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Glycyrrhiza uralensis)
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
- Golden root (Rhodiola rosea)
- Fish oil
- Green and black tea
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- Thiamine (vitamin B1)
- Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5)
- Vitamin C. (9)
8. Have your cortisol level checked.
A blood or saliva test will tell if you are producing more-than-normal cortisol to confirm or dismiss the existence of adrenal fatigue.
If your symptoms persist, they may be signs of something else. See your healthcare practitioner to help you discover what’s amiss so it can be properly addressed.
Being an empath is a gift, connecting you more closely to the universe around you. It doesn’t always feel like that when you take on more than your share of energy and emotion.
With proper management, you can use and enjoy your gift by helping others (and yourself in the process). Empaths are the ones that people naturally gravitate to for their friends and confidants. Remaining open while protecting yourself is a tricky balance but one well worth mastering.