If you’re an empathetic person, that means that you feel a lot of…well, empathy. Empathy is the ability to pick up on, relate to, and understand how the people around you feel. In other words, empathy allows you to connect emotionally and cognitively with others.
But being empathetic and being an empath is not the same thing. Whereas empathetic people can relate to others’ emotions, empaths take things to the next level. Empaths are individuals who can disregard their own thoughts and emotions and instead feel the emotions, perspective, and reality of those around them. 1 2 6
In this article, we’re first going to explore both empathy and being an empath. Then, we’re going to explore the science that links empaths and anxiety.
How is Feeling Empathy Different from Being an Empath?
The best way to describe the difference between feeling empathy and being an empath is with an example. Say that a close friend of yours loses a family member, such as a parent or grandparent. Although you may not have experienced the same type of loss, you’re still able to empathize with the person. That is, you can recognize and understand the grief that your friend is going through at this sad time.
But an empath won’t just understand the grief. If you’re an empath, you will feel and sense your friend’s emotions as if they’re your own. To put it simply, you feel with your friend, not for them. In a sense, their pain becomes your pain. 1 4 6
Two Main Types of Empathy
Empathy is a concept that encompasses a wide range of neurological-based reactions. As such, you can break it down into several categories. We’re going to cover the two most widely accepted here: emotional (affective) empathy and cognitive empathy (empathic accuracy).
- Feeling someone else’s emotions
- Experiencing your own distress as a result of another’s emotions or situation
- Having compassion for a person in distress
As we can see, emotional empathy affects our own emotional state in response to someone else’s. This is different from cognitive empathy, which allows us to read and understand someone else’s emotions separately from experiencing them. Having high empathic accuracy not only lets you feel what’s happening, but also means you can put context and rationale behind the emotions. 6 8
Signs You May be an Empath
There is plenty of literature on indications that you may be an empath, some less clinical than others. Add to that the fact that empathy is a spectrum, not a “you have it, or you don’t” emotion, and there are literally dozens of potential indicators. We’re not going to go that deep in our examination of empaths and anxiety. Instead, we’re going to take a look at the signs with varying degrees of clinical merit.
- Score highly on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index
- Feel other people’s emotional pain
- Can quickly and accurately recognize facial expressions and corresponding emotions
- Unconsciously mirror other people’s emotions and movements
- Display less aggression than the average person
- Feel overwhelmed by intimate connections or crowds
The Science Behind Empaths and Anxiety
There is some emerging scientific evidence that suggests empathic brains work differently than others. For instance, MRI scans have revealed the individuals with high empathy experience enhanced neural relay mechanisms. This allows empaths to “mirror” physical expressions, mannerisms, and postures of those around them. Furthermore, similar scans have shown that empaths’ brains activate the same network of emotional circuits as the person they’re looking at. If you’re an empath, that means you can literally feel what someone else is feeling just by looking at them. 3 4 6
Some of these nuances in the brain may also affect how empaths and anxiety interact. Early clinical evidence suggests that there is a link between empathy and anxiety. Many people who have anxiety show higher empathic ability, and vice versa. It’s these correlations that we’re going to examine next.
Empaths and Anxiety Dimensions
First up, we’re going to look at a limiting – but telling – study from researchers at the University of Warsaw in Poland and the University of Houston in Texas. The researchers determined that existing literature promotes the idea that anxiety is positively correlated to affective empathy and personal emotional distress. However, the data on anxiety “dimensions,” or types and experiences of anxiety, is far less advanced.
Using this information as a catalyst, the researchers designed a study to examine how empathy affects anxiety dimensions, including physical symptoms, social and panic disorders, and separation and rejection anxiety. The authors performed this study with over 400 inpatient adolescents and found that, in this population: 8
- Affective empathy was correlated with every anxiety dimension studied
- High empathic arousal intensified one’s anxieties and led to more anxiety
- Individuals with separation or rejection anxiety were more likely to be empathetic
- Individuals with low cognitive and high affective empathy were more likely to have social anxiety
However, this study is limited by a few factors. Chiefly, all participants were not only adolescents – a highly emotionally-charged point in life – but were receiving inpatient treatments. As a result, the authors suggested that more clinical studies on different age groups are required to explore the nature of empaths and anxiety.
Empaths and Social Anxiety
The second study we’re going to examine focused more intensely on individuals with social anxiety. Researchers used computerized tasks and self-rated exams to look at empathy in a high socially anxious (HSA) group and a low socially anxious (LSA) group. This study found that, rather than being across-the-board empathetic, each group excelled in a different area. 7
- The HSA group was found to have higher effective empathy
- The LSA group was found to have greater cognitive empathy when controlled for generalized anxiety
The results of this study directly contrast the results from our previous study. While the dissonance could be due to age, patient status, or other mental health disorders, it’s also possible that the first study failed to correct for a generalized anxiety disorder in their findings. Thus, this further backs the researcher’s claims that more clinical studies are needed.
Empaths and Anxiety: Where Do We Stand?
While empathy has a long history of psychological studies under its belt, there is far less on the subject of empaths and anxiety. Most modern studies suggest that empathy has a neurological or chemical basis in the brain. They also agree that there appears to be a correlation between high levels of empathy and anxiety disorders. But the exact nature of the relationship remains unclear at present.
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