This exact scenario had played out so many times in my life. But this was the first time I had a sort of outside-looking-in awareness of it.
It was a clear blue October day and we were walking through the streets of Seoul. I was having a great time taking in the sights and history and culture. I popped into a shop to browse, lured in by the anorak jacket hanging in the window. Two women greeted me, but the shop was otherwise empty. Looking at the jacket I decided it wasn’t quite what I wanted so I thanked them and made my way out of the shop and back into the crowded streets of Seoul.
My husband was waiting for me with our two kids and as I crossed the street toward them I was suddenly overcome with extreme sadness, so much so, that I involuntarily began sobbing. It felt like I had stepped into a dark cloud and I was taken over by intense grief. My husband, alarmed, began asking “What’s wrong? What happened?”.
“I don’t know” I replied.
A familiar answer to the question “why are you crying” I seemed to be so frequently asked while sobbing in crowded places. As an empath, maybe you recognize this same type of scenario from your own life.
The answer “I don’t know” was the truth. I didn’t know why I was crying. I was having a great day. These feelings of immense grief and sadness were not mine.
And, for the first time, I distinctly made the correlation that I had unintentionally taken on the emotions of a stranger.
As empaths, we’re familiar with the energetic and emotional overwhelm in crowded spaces. Without proper tools to help us, we experience the emotions of others so deeply that they feel like our own emotions.
Heartache, grief, sorrow, physical pain, we feel it in our bodies as if it is our own. It is not the same experience as understanding someones heartache, grief, or sadness. It is the experience as if it were happening to you.
I’ve always felt there was a correlation between my sensitivity to this, and my sensitivity to illness. Why did I feel things no one else seemed to feel. And also, why did I seem to get sick more than everyone around me? Why did I have unexplained symptoms and chronic health issues. Why did I always crash after a busy semester or a holiday season? There has to be a connection here.
In 2022 I set out to conduct research on this by interviewing folks who identified as empaths or highly sensitive and who were also living with chronic or recurring health issues.
The conversations all went exactly the same.
These women were highly sensitive, empathic, driven women who were also suffering from people pleasing and perfectionist tendencies with continued health issues including migraines, gastro issues, fatigue, anxiety, or autoimmune disease.
I resonated with their stories because it was also my story.
And it’s made me continue to explore this topic deeper.
We know there is a correlation between stress and physical health. Stress, especially chronic stress, can cause inflammation in the body, and inflammation is linked to many diseases.
Our own stress, yes. But what about the stress, sadness, or even pain, we are absorbing from others as an empath?
If we are taking those emotions and stress on as our own, our body is not differentiating between the two. So it makes sense that this absorbed energy is going to effect our nervous system.
There is also a debate as to whether empaths are born or are the product of a traumatic childhood. Personally, I think it can be both.
As empaths who do have a history of trauma, consider the constant state of fight-or-flight your body may have been in (or continues to be in). Fight-or-flight is meant to be a temporary survival mechanism, during which the immune system is shut down. But what about when we stay in it for a prolonged period? Being in a perpetual state of a dysregulation, with increased cortisol and adrenaline running through our body, is going to affect everything, including our physical health.
While many of the energy cleansing and energy protection techniques for empaths are endlessly helpful for navigating crowds and avoiding overwhelm, in order to truly begin to feel grounded and safe, I believe nervous system regulation is key. This is why I feel so adamant about being gentle with ourselves AND having the tools to protect our energy.
So, what can we do as empaths to help move us out of a chronic state of stress? It’s all about embodiment and gently caring for ourselves and our needs.
Soothing ideas to get you started:
- Getting enough sleep and rest
- Eating nourishing meals
- Tending to the impact of our trauma
- Finding community where we feel safe and accepted
- Moving our bodies in ways that feel good
- Tending to our inner child and making space for joy and ease
- Connecting to our bodies through practices like breathing or meditation or movement
- Listening to soothing music
- Practicing mindfulness
- Spending time in nature
- Drinking a hot cup of tea
- Creating art or using our hands
The list goes on. I would invite you to spend some time coming up with your own list of activities that you find soothing and nourishing for you body, mind, and soul.
When you feel like you might be taking on the emotions or pain of someone else, can you stop, place your hands on your heart or on your body, and ask yourself “Is this sensation mine?” And if it’s not, can you release it. That might look like thanking your sensitivity for being a powerful tool for connecting to your world, but since this is not yours to hold, release it now. Notice if there is a shift in your energy or in the sensations in your body.
The more we can learn to connect to and trust ourselves, our bodies, and our inner knowing, the more space we make to shift into an energy of healing.
Want to explore gentle living?
Check out my 21 Days of Gentle Living guide. Using practices like mindfulness, journaling, reflection, and connecting to the body you’ll get to practice prioritizing yourself and viewing yourself through a more gentle and loving lens. Plus there is a bonus page for energy hygiene rituals.
*Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Please see your healthcare provider for any medical symptoms or health related issues.