Parents, doulas, and caretakers share many admirable traits that enable them to act or react to an adversarial condition to assure the safety of their family, spouse, pets, or clients. Empathy is the ability to walk in someone's shoes and feel their experience, but not all emotional connections are healthy, nor happy. So, empaths, or people who are sensitive to being overly empathetic, need to be cautious about how they share their energy so they don't attract negative energies, or deplete themselves of their own energy.
Feeling another person's emotional distress in a crisis situation can help an injured or ill person get the attention they need quickly. But empathy is much less useful when the caretaking couple are unable to experience their emotions as separate people, and lose their ability to journey their own path. Prolonged empathy, known as chronic empathy, can damage physical and mental health, even debilitate the caretaker much like a chronic illness would when they become emotionally entangled with the feelings of the other.
Who, then, takes care of the empath? There is a great cost when excessive empathy affects the health of a caretaker.
Studies of brains through MRI's have shown that some people can experience trauma and depression simply through empathy (Donegan, 2015, Beckes 2013). If brains undergo change as a result of empathetic trauma, meaning a condition that did not actually happen to the individual, can it work the other way as well? Can we literally train our brains to feel trust, faith, happiness and love for someone we only felt in suffering? It turns out we can! With compassion training.
In an experiment by researchers at a German University, one group spent a week practicing metta, a kind of meditation that focuses on loving-kindness and compassion toward others. A control group was instructed to focus on cultivating empathy. Although the empathy control group stated experiencing emotions that were deeply connected with the feelings of others, they also reported experiencing more distress in everyday situations. The compassion group felt deeply connected with the feelings of others, but did NOT experience any negative effects! As a happy ending, the researchers even spent an additional week after the study concluded to help the empathy control group with compassion training. :)
Our brains are resilient if we give ourselves the right intent and focus, such as what mindfulness and compassion meditation provides. If you are an empath, or struggle with balancing your emotions with those of another, yoga can help. Yoga and meditation work together to reduce suffering and preserve a healthy body and mind. Namaste'
Note: This article is for informational use, and not intended to help diagnose any condition.
Kristen Fewel, Yoga Educator, Reiki Master
Full Circle Yoga & Healing Arts