Empaths are people who take on the emotions of others. In psychology, this is known as affective empathy. Several studies have found an association between affective empathy and anxiety.
The concept of empaths is not a scientific one, but people who self-identify as empaths report having a keen awareness of the feelings of others. They sometimes report being able to feel the anxiety of others, or that they often worry about others’ well-being.
For example, an older 2016 study of teenagers found that affective empathy had links to higher levels of anxiety.
Read on to learn more about empaths and anxiety, including what the connection is, what causes the anxiety, and how to cope.
Empaths are people who report having a higher capacity for empathy than is typical. For some, the term is simply a descriptive word for having high empathy. Others view being an empath as an identity or spiritual gift.
Because being an empath is not a medical diagnosis, medical researchers have not investigated its effects. However, they have researched different types of empathy.
- Cognitive empathy: This is the ability to correctly identify another person’s emotions and state of mind based on logic. For example, a teacher who identifies that a student who is avoiding an assignment is actually scared of it is using cognitive empathy to interpret their actions.
- Affective empathy: This is the tendency to identify and then take on the emotions of others. For example, a person might become anxious when their partner is anxious or feel angry when around a group of angry people.
Empaths report having a high level of affective empathy, rather than cognitive empathy.
Not all highly empathetic people have higher than usual levels of anxiety, or an anxiety disorder. However, a small body of research does suggest that affective empathy could be a risk factor.
In a 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis, researchers looked at prior studies establishing a link between both affective and cognitive empathy, and social anxiety.
The authors found that affective empathy increased the risk of social anxiety, but that there was a negative association between cognitive empathy and social anxiety.
So, taking on the feelings of others may correlate to higher rates of anxiety, but logically understanding the feelings of others may not.
Scientists have not determined the cause of anxiety among those with high empathy. However, a 2018 study of 840 people found that while people with high empathy were more likely to experience distress in the form of anxiety or depression, not all did.
The participants who reported lower levels of emotional distress had the ability to regulate their emotions. Even when they had high empathy, the ability to manage feelings had associations with lower levels of anxiety and depression.
This suggests that cultivating tools for managing one’s emotions can help reduce anxiety in those with high empathy.
Anecdotally, some empaths also report that they experience anxiety due to:
- Empathy itself: Some people report that being around anxious people makes them anxious, too.
- Feeling overwhelmed: A person may feel overwhelmed by the emotions of others or concerned about their ability to cope with them.
- Motives: People who notice negative emotions in others may worry about where those feelings are coming from.
- Judgment: Empathetic people may be more acutely aware of the judgments of others, which may exacerbate social anxiety.
- Concern for others: Some empaths say they worry about others when they notice they are struggling, such as when they feel sad or angry.
Empathy is essential for relationships and, in some situations, for survival. Researchers do not fully understand why some people experience higher levels of empathy than others, but some explanations include:
- Environmental influences: The way a person grows up may affect empathy levels. For example, highly empathetic parents may model high empathy to their children, allowing them to learn this skill.
- Trauma: People who experience trauma early in life may develop high empathy as a way to protect themselves, as it may allow them to predict others’ actions. A
2018 paperfound a correlation between trauma exposure and high empathy and found that the more severe the trauma, the higher the empathy.
- Biology: Researchers have proposed a number of biological explanations for empathy, including those involving genetics and brain chemistry. One promising line of research has investigated mirror neurons, which are a type of nerve cell in the brain that may dictate the capacity for empathy. People with low mirror neurons may have lower levels of empathy.
In the context of empaths, this could mean learning to distinguish between a person’s own feelings and that of others, or learning skills that prevent them from becoming overwhelming.
The exact things that will help will depend on what a person finds most challenging. Some strategies that may be beneficial include:
- Learning coping skills: Coping skills can provide short-term help with anxiety. This could include breathing exercises, mindfulness, or other techniques.
- Setting boundaries: People with high affective empathy may have difficulty saying no to people, or feel obligated to help others. When people do this too much, they can become burned out. Boundaries help people stay mentally and physically well.
- Emotional expression: Emotional regulation does not mean a person needs to suppress their emotions. For some, having an outlet for them may be helpful. This could be a journal, a creative hobby, or a physical activity.
- Managing time: Some people with high empathy may benefit from taking breaks from social interaction or blocking time off for themselves.
- Therapy: Through therapy, people can learn how their early experiences might have influenced their capacity for empathy and how they can harness their empathy.
Being an empath, or having high empathy, is not a problem or flaw. It can be an advantage. But if a person experiences frequent anxiety or distress, for any reason, they may benefit from speaking with a therapist.
Consider seeking support if anxiety:
- feels overwhelming
- causes panic attacks
- interferes with school, work, or relationships
- occurs with periods of low mood or depression
- makes a person feel hopeless or worthless
Empaths are people with higher-than-typical levels of affective empathy, or the ability to feel the emotions of others. People who identify as empaths may take on the emotions, and sometimes problems, of others as their own. Research has found an association between this type of empathy and anxiety.
Not everyone with high empathy has anxiety, though. Emotional regulation may be key in reducing the levels of distress that people with high affective empathy experience. Learning this skill may be empowering, allowing someone to use their empathy more intentionally.