Life Health & Wellbeing

Friday 30 September 2016

Wellbeing: Running on empathy

Are you in the 20 per cent of highly sensitive people who feel too much emotion?

Published 04/08/2015 | 02:30

Author Jon Ronson.
Author Jon Ronson.

Popular culture and morbid curiosity have brought books about sociopaths and psychopaths to the top of the required reading list in recent years.

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Jon Ronson engaged the masses with The Psychopath Test while Confessions of a Sociopath revealed the inner workings of a group of people that are "hiding in plain sight".

But what about the other side of this spectrum? While psychopaths and sociopaths are said to feel very little, there is another, lesser discussed group of people, that feel too much.

They are known as 'emotional empaths' and they are slowly gaining a place on the bookshop shelf thanks to Judith Orloff, the author of the New York Times bestseller Emotional Freedom.

"Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions", she writes. "They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme, and are less apt to intellectualise feelings. Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world".

According to Orloff, empaths are the type of people you want on your side. "They are naturally giving, spiritually attuned and good listeners. If you want heart, empaths have got it. Through thick and thin, they're there for you, world-class nurturers".

However, their inside world is challenging. Psychologist and yoga teacher Bo Forbes describes the empath's environment as "emotional satellite radio with surround sound and hundreds of channels".

Empaths can walk into a room and perceive the moods and motivations of all in attendance before anyone has opened their mouth. Strangers often share their life stories with them, before adding, "I don't know why I'm telling you this".

I know some empaths who can't watch the news because it moves them to tears and who have to avoid shopping centres because they become overwhelmed in large crowds.

The scientific term for this phenomenon is Sensory Processing Sensitivity. Dr Elaine Aron, a psychotherapist and researcher, estimates that nearly one fifth of people have nervous systems that process stimuli - both positive and negative - more intensely. They show heightened awareness to subtle stimuli, process information more thoroughly and can become over-stimulated easily.

Other scientists have suggested a link between empathy and mirror neurons. While this particular theory has as many critics as it has advocates, it may explain why empaths tend to make fantastic mimics and actors.

Hyper-empathy is the fuel for many talents, but the gift is only realised when it is harnessed with coping skills. The first - and indeed the most empowering - step is acknowledging that you're not "over-sensitive" or "over-analytical", as you have no doubt been told by all around you. You have a highly developed nervous system, that's all. The next step is understanding that your ability to intuit someone's pain doesn't mean you are obligated to ease it.

Ideally empaths should befriend those that are wired similarly. At the very least they'll be comforted by the inevitable "you too?!" moments. They should also be vigilant around those with low energy, as they are especially prone to emotional contagion. An empath can find themselves yawning in the company of those with low moods, just as the company of high-spirited people is akin to drinking four espressos very quickly.

Orloff describes empaths as "angst-sucking sponges" and she suggests a visualisation exercise for when they are in the company of low energy people: "A handy form of protection many people use, including healers with trying patients, involves visualising an envelope of white light (or any colour you feel imparts power) around your entire body. Think of it as a shield that blocks out negativity or physical discomfort but allows what's positive to filter in".

Likewise, if you're having casual sex, be careful about who you're intimate with. Sex is an intense form of energy exchange, even more so for the empath who can feel depleted after sleeping with a partner with lower energy.

Alone time is imperative for the empath. They need personal space in which to detach and process. Be sure to prioritise it, particularly during the festive season and holidays. Breaks from technology are important too - few of us are coping with the modern-day deluge of emails, but empaths are especially overwhelmed.

Grounding exercises are of enormous benefit too. Orloff suggests a high-protein meal as a grounding tool for empaths that are fazed by big crowds. Nature is another excellent grounding tool, even better if you can get your bare feet on the ground.

Essential oils such as sandalwood and patchouli will keep you rooted, while oils such as sage and frankincense are said to defend the empath from emotional contagion. Restorative yoga is another ally, particularly if you have chronic fatigue, which I'm convinced is a predisposition of the emotional empath.

When you put these coping skills in your toolbox, you'll become less inclined to use food, alcohol and drugs to temper your sensitivities and unconsciously numb your emotions.

The life of an emotional empath can be exhausting, however, when managed correctly, it can be exhilarating too.

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