Do you ever start to feel terrible after hearing about someone else’s problems? Or maybe that happy co-worker perked up your spirits? According to research, emotions are contagious, especially if you are an empath.
“The science behind empathy is fascinating,” said Dr. Judith Orloff, M.D. and author of “The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.”
Orloff, who is on the UCLA Psychiatric Clinical Faculty and has been studying the topic of emotional contagion for decades, said there is plenty of scientific evidence that shows we can catch someone else’s emotions – good or bad.
“It’s believed there is a spectrum – so an empath’s mirror neurons feel compassion, whereas the sociopath or the narcissist has empathy disorder,” Orloff said. “You can have someone who’s really positive in the office come in and then everyone gets positive. Then you can have negative contagion – where someone is afraid or a victim or blaming, or anxious, all of that can spread in the office too. Think of the baby ward in a hospital – if one baby starts crying, then the rest of the babies start crying.”
An empath herself, Orloff found it difficult to explain her symptoms as a child.
“My mother was a doctor, and I have 25 doctors in my family, a very strong scientific base, and they said, ‘Oh dear, you just don’t have a thick enough skin. You need to toughen up.'” Orloff said. “In my teenaged years, it got really bad. I would go into shopping malls as a kid, and I would go in feeling fine and come out exhausted or with some sort of ache or pain I didn’t have before feeling depressed or anxious. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Orloff said many empaths are misdiagnosed.
“I had a patient come to me, she had been told she had all these things – adrenal fatigue, fibromyalgia, panic disorder. She felt totally overwhelmed,” Orloff said. “So I started talking to her about the symptoms of being an empath and she checked all the boxes. It was like a light bulb went on in her head. She said, ‘I thought I was a hypochondriac!'”
Common personality traits of an empath include being labeled as “overly sensitive” or “anxious,” having a strong reaction to smells and sounds, preferring one-on-one interactions to crowds, and needing alone time to revive. Empaths who aren’t properly diagnosed can experience depression, general fatigue, mood swings, lack of sex drive and brain fog.
So how can empaths get relief? Orloff suggests these self-care techniques:
“‘No’ is a complete sentence,” said Orloff. “I tell that to my patients all the time. Boundaries have to be short and sweet – they aren’t a big discussion. A lot of empaths are afraid to set boundaries because they are people-pleasers so they’re afraid of rejection or disappointing people. Don’t become a doormat. It can lead to depression, low self-esteem and all kinds of issues.”
Take some alone time
Orloff recommends taking a lunch break away from the office whenever possible.
“And anything to do with water, whether you live near water or just go to a park with a fountain, the negative ions of water are very healing,” she said. “You can’t keep pushing all day long without taking breaks away from people.”
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Is this emotion mine or somebody else’s?’ You have to get used to looking at life that way and the way you tell is you have to look at your mood before you meet somebody, and then see if you feel exhausted or depressed afterwards. If you feel different, then most likely you’re picking up somebody else’s stuff,” Orloff said.
Breathe for three minutes
“I start my empaths off with a three-minute meditation and that’s all,” Orloff said. “I breathe in slowly to a count of six, hold for a beat, and then breathe out slowly for six. This can really re-set your nervous system. And think of something that calms you and makes you happy. I visualize the ocean, which I love, but it could be a cabin in the forest, whatever triggers joy – and it helps reign in scattered energy. So I walk my patients through the process – just for three minutes with calm breathing, and by shifting focus, you start to feel really good.”
Jenniffer Weigel is director of community relations for the Sun-Times and has had a lifelong interest in wellness and related topics. She’s a frequent contributor to the Wednesday Well section.