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Are you so empathic that you soak up others' emotions and experience them yourself? Are you overwhelmed by your hyper empathy?

Are you a very empathetic person — someone who doesn't just have the ability to pinpoint another person's feelings, but to soak their emotions up and experience them too? 

Hearing the mere term "hyper empathy syndrome" may evoke a bunch of different emotions for you in itself, from relief in knowing that you can't be alone, to an anxious curiosity while you find out more, and a hope that you'll be able to do something about the debilitating level of empathy you have been living with. 

If you're looking for answers, they are, unfortunately, not as easy to come by as you might like — but we'll try. 

What Is Hyper Empathy Syndrome? Can I Be Diagnosed With It?

Google "hyper empathy syndrome", and you'll certainly get a bunch of results. Look for scientific information, and the pickings suddenly become a great deal slimmer.

You'll read about the case of a woman who developed hyper empathy after undergoing brain surgery for epilepsy, during which part of her amygdala — a part of the brain essential for decision-making and processing emotions [1] — was removed. Post-surgery, the woman even felt enormous empathy towards fictional characters. The 2013 paper on the topic [2] is significant precisely because it is unique.

Hyper empathy disorder is not currently an officially diagnosable condition anywhere, and there is no procedure that specifically involves testing for hyper empathy disorder. Hyper empathy syndrome could, arguably, be diagnosed as "Personality Disorder Trait Specified" under the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-5. This term replaces the "Personality Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (NOS)" present in the old DSM-IV, and has slightly different diagnostic criteria as well:

  • Significant impairment in daily functioning, either in relation to the self or in relation to others. 
  • Persistent negative emotions, detachment, hostility, or disinhibition and compulsivity.
  • You must experience these symptoms on a consistent basis, and they must not be explainable by other things such as drug abuse, another mental disorder, physical factors such as brain injuries, or cultural factors. [3]

Being hyper empathic can certainly cause significant impairment and distress, and it also seems to be an integral part of a person's state of being. In other words, if you suffer from excessive empathy, and you don't also have another disorder that could explain your symptoms, it seems possible that there is a possible diagnosis for you. It just won't be called hyper empathy disorder — not yet, anyway. 

Hyper empathy can also be a "side effect" of conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder [4], with adults with Asperger's and too much empathy especially seeming quite common, Borderline Personality Disorder [5], and Sensory Processing Sensitivity [6]. 

Regardless of scientific data or lack thereof, one thing is clear — people who experience what they perceive as an excessive amount of empathy do exist. You might call that hyper empathy syndrome, or hyper empathy disorder, or being hyper empathic, or being an empath. More important than the term used are the feelings that go along with this condition. 

People who believe they suffer from "it", whatever you want to call it, tend to describe it as such:

  • You soak up others' moods and emotions easily, and whether you want to or not. 
  • You may even experience physical feelings someone else is feeling — such as experiencing pain when you watch someone else stump their toe. 
  • You are likely to be highly intuitive
  • You might be introverted, but even if you're not, you'll need alone time, because other people's emotions can become so overwhelming and distressing that you just cannot handle them anymore. 

And let's face it — that stuff is hard. Regardless of what causes hyper empathy, and it certainly seems that the causes are different for different people, the foremost question on an empath's mind will be how to cope with the feelings they have. 

How To Take Control Of Positive And Negative Emotions As A Hyper Empathic Person

Here at SteadyHealth, we like to keep things evidence-based whenever possible. Since we're dealing with a very under-researched condition here, that is going to be tricky. Nonetheless, where science fails to offer concrete solutions, common sense can sometimes step in. 

Setting Boundaries

Have you ever heard of caregiver burnout? It's a condition caregivers who don't get the assistance and breaks they need, and who chew off more than they can bite, sometimes suffer from. Doctors, nurses, intimate partners, children, and parents of people who require extensive care can all be hit by this form of burnout. [7]

As a person with hyper empathy syndrome, or an empath, you're so attuned to other people's emotions that it wouldn't be surprising if you felt like a constant caregiver as well. You, too, may begin experiencing caregiver burnout just from being around needy people, and needy people are attracted to you like moths are to flames. 

Setting boundaries can help you with this, and boundary-setting tips given to caregivers include, as fellow SteadyHealth author and caregiver to the elderly Anna Schaap shares :

  • Don't let your life become a bottomless hole of catering to the needs of others, or you won't have energy left to help anyone at all. Sometimes, recommending another resource is enough. Sometimes, saying no to someone who wants your help, or saying no in your head to someone you want to help, is the healthiest thing you can do. Saying you're able to listen to someone's problems or help them with their needs at some later date is perfectly acceptable as well, in most cases. (That is, when they don't require acute medical or mental care.)
  • Make a mental note of which people especially drain your emotional energy, and give yourself permission to limit your contact with them. 
  • You'll feel guilty when you decide to only do as much as you can realistically do, or do no more than you are supposed to do professionally in your job, but be kind to yourself as well. Really work on feeling the compassion you have for other people towards yourself, also.

Grounding And 'Me Time'

As a highly empathic person, you are going to need time away from other people, time for yourself and by yourself. 

You're likely to find spending time in nature — in the woods, by the water, or even in your own garden — by yourself to be an extremely grounding and relaxing experience that allows you to reconnect with your inner self. The restorative effect of nature has been scientifically proven [8] and nature has a good chance of having the potential to recharge your mental batteries as well. 

While many people read books and watch television or movies to help them relax and de-stress, those whose hyper empathy extends to fictional characters may want to schedule completely people-free evenings, at least a few times a week. Meditation, which research reveals can help people suffering from anxiety disorders [9], may help people with hyper empathy syndrome in the same way books and TV helps other people.

Finally, you may benefit from journaling, another great solitary activity that helps you formulate and solidify your own thoughts.

Essentially, it doesn't matter very much what solitary activities you choose, as long as you find them soothing and you make sure to actually make the time to engage in them. 

Some empaths find other people's emotions so overwhelming that they may benefit from seeking out jobs that involve less face-to-face contact with other humans. Even folks in those kinds of jobs will have families and friends, and if they live in a busy household with children, fellow students, or parents, for instance, they may want to either carve out a solitary spot just for them in the home, or identify places outside the home where they can be as alone as possible on a daily basis. The library, jogging in a quiet part of town with soothing music playing into earphones, and even your car can all be examples. 

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