Empathy helps you understand the feelings of others and see things from their perspective. This important social response can promote compassion and care for other people’s well-being.
Everyone has a natural capacity for empathy, but it’s generally considered more of a skill than a fixed trait. It develops through a combination of your experiences and relationships, beginning with childhood caregivers. It’s important to note that genes also play a small role in the development of empathy.
As a result, people end up with varying levels of empathy as adults.
Some people, known as empaths, have such high empathy that they seem to take on the feelings of others.
If you’re an empath, you might find yourself absorbing the emotions of those around you. When they experience joy, you get caught up in their happiness. When they experience sadness you carry that emotional burden, too.
It may come as little surprise, then, that there’s a potential link between high empathy and anxiety. Here’s what to know about that link, along with some guidance on protecting your emotional health.
Understanding the different types of empathy can make it easier to understand how anxiety and empathy intersect.
- Cognitive empathy. This describes the ability to understand what someone else feels. For example, specific clues in body language and tone of voice might offer insight into their underlying thoughts and emotions.
- Affective empathy. This refers to the ability to share what someone else feels. This emotional empathy, which generally happens automatically, can foster compassion and motivate you to offer support.
Empaths tend to have high affective empathy. When people you care about face worry and stress, you experience that emotional pain right along with them. As long as they continue to struggle, you might feel anxious and concerned on their behalf.
If you live with general anxiety, you may spend a fair amount of time worrying about the future or cycling through negative unwanted thoughts.
You might worry about a choice you made that affected a friend. Or, you might mull over broader fears.
“How would I feel if that were me?” you might wonder. This thought can spur your desire to help and make it easier to imagine yourself in a similar situation. But when you have high empathy, existing anxiety can feed off the emotions of people around you, making you feel even worse.
You might become so fixated on their pain that you have a hard time distancing yourself from it. It might feel difficult — if not impossible — to “turn off” this heightened empathy and detach from your anxious concern.
One 2018 study exploring the link between anxiety and empathy looked at teenagers admitted to a private psychiatric hospital over a period of 6 years.
Participants completed three self-report assessments of empathy, anxiety, and depression. The results of the assessments suggested a positive correlation between affective empathy and anxiety: When one increased, so did the other.
This may happen because sharing emotions often prompts distress. If you feel you’re unable to help your loved ones, you might feel guilty when you think about their struggles or share their pain.
Your guilt can fuel worries about them being disappointed in you or rejecting you. This perception could eventually lead you to withdraw or strain the relationship in other ways. As you begin worrying about the relationship’s health, the dominoes continue to fall.
The same 2018 study found support for a negative correlation between social anxiety and cognitive empathy. Participants with lower cognitive empathy were more likely to have higher levels of social anxiety.
Those with high affective empathy and low cognitive empathy, on the other hand, seemed to experience more severe social anxiety.
Remember, high affective empathy typically means you experience emotions along with others. But with low cognitive empathy, you have a harder time understanding what people feel, so you might struggle to make sense of what those emotions actually mean.
This can easily become confusing and overwhelming, especially when it comes to unpleasant emotions.
Lower cognitive empathy can make it difficult for you to navigate social situations and get along with your peers. If social interaction is often a challenge for you, it’s possible that you’ll start feeling pretty nervous about it. It might seem easier to stick with the few people who you understand, and the idea of talking to anyone else might increase your anxiety.
Another take on this connection
Researchers had people of varying ages complete different assessments of anxiety and social anxiety symptoms. They found that participants with higher social anxiety also showed greater empathy.
Yet after they adjusted the results to take general anxiety into account, people with higher social anxiety showed greater cognitive empathy, not affective empathy, conflicting with the results of the other study.
The role of perspective-taking
These different findings may come down to perspective-taking, a key component of cognitive empathy.
Social anxiety involves significant fear and worry about the way others perceive you. You might regularly evaluate yourself through the eyes of other people and become hyperaware of positive or negative judgment, including shifts in body language, facial expression, and tone.
But here’s the interesting thing: Authors from the 2011 study compared participants with high and low social anxiety and found that people with high social anxiety had more accurate affective empathy and less accurate cognitive empathy.
So, even when you spend a lot of time imagining how others see you, your impressions may not be accurate. This is because you’re operating from the assumption that they see the same flaws you see in yourself.
Experts have also found support for a relationship between empathy and depression.
People with depression often respond more strongly to the pain and emotional distress others experience.
In a small
This increase in empathetic distress could help explain why people with depression often withdraw. When you’re experiencing depression symptoms, seeing other people in pain can make you feel worse.
Depression and empathy often play off each other cyclically. You worry about loved ones and want to help them. When you can’t, because you’re experiencing an episode of depression, you might believe you failed or see yourself as worthless. This can intensify both guilt and depression.
Maybe you even blame yourself for their pain. Research linking guilt to empathy suggests depression-related guilt could partially stem from greater empathetic distress.
Either way, you pull back from others to avoid further hurt, but this can cost you the potential benefit of social support.
It’s worth noting that lower levels of empathy can also contribute to depression. Say you find it challenging to empathize with others and feel like you always mess up when it comes to social interactions.
Eventually, these empathy-related mishaps (real or perceived) lead you to avoid people more often than not, and you might end up feeling alone and frustrated. The resulting loneliness you experience could play a part in depression.
By now, you might wonder what these findings mean for you. Does high empathy always trigger depression and anxiety? Are you always going to experience distress because you care? Maybe you’ve already noticed how internal turmoil related to the concerns of people you know, or the world as a whole, triggers worry.
What if you’re on the other end of the spectrum? You want to work at developing your empathy for others, but you don’t want symptoms of anxiety and depression to follow or get worse if you already live with either.
But consider this: Now that you know about the connection, you can take steps to address its effect.
Practice mindful acceptance
Empaths often find their emotional sensitivity difficult to switch off. Maybe you’ve noticed that the emotional energy given off by those around you prompts stress or a low mood. You can’t help experiencing these feelings. But acknowledging them and letting them go can make a big difference.
You don’t necessarily have to “turn down” your capacity to care — you can boost resilience and cultivate concern for others at the same time.
Say your partner feels hurt and frustrated after arguing with a loved one. As they explain what happened, you feel their pain and sadness along with them.
To keep it from overwhelming you, try this exercise:
- Take a few deep breaths to ground yourself.
- Acknowledge the distress you feel.
- Remind yourself that taking on their pain won’t help them.
- Take a few more deep breaths, imagining the distress leaving your body as you exhale.
Remember, empathy isn’t the same as compassion. Getting stuck in distress can affect your ability to offer support. Mindfully releasing emotions helps you move from the “feeling” stage to the “acting” stage, where you can show compassion by validating their distress, asking how you can help, or offering a positive distraction.
Finding it tough to accept and let go of difficult emotions? Consider giving meditation a try.
Honor your boundaries
Strong personal boundaries are key for empaths.
Feeling overwhelmed by emotions can lead you to avoid situations that put pressure on your empathetic resources. You might struggle to manage difficult feelings and withdraw from loved ones to better protect yourself.
Setting limits around situations that tax you emotionally can lower your risk of reaching a breaking point.
If you’re already feeling low, maybe you reschedule plans with a friend who drains you emotionally. When you feel anxious, you might skip scrollingthrough news articles and social media in favor of reading a favorite book or watching a comforting movie.
Good self-care also matters. You’re more likely to feel anxious and low when running on empty. Keep your batteries charged by paying attention to what you need in terms of quality rest and solitude. Then, set aside time to fulfill those needs.
Watch for looping thoughts
Rumination, or cycling through the same distressing thoughts again and again, can happen with both anxiety and depression.
Circling through fears and worries might seem like a good way to resolve them, but ruminating on negative experiences and emotions can actually make it harder to find solutions. In the end, you’re more likely to feel trapped by the cycle of distress.
Not all empaths experience anxiety, and there’s some
This makes sense if you think about it. If you don’t ruminate on the emotions you share with others, your distress may be fleeting rather than a source of persistent worry.
Squash the worry with these 10 strategies to stop ruminating.
You can sometimes ease the emotional overwhelm that often accompanies empathy on your own. When it begins to make you feel anxious or distressed, though, it may be time to talk to a professional.
Anxiety and depression often don’t go away without treatment.
A therapist can help you identify links between empathy and distress and work to address any patterns causing difficulty. In therapy, you can also learn about setting healthy boundaries and building a toolbox of coping skills, including meditation and self-care practices.
Therapists can also offer support with developing empathy by helping you practice active listening, mindfulness, and other helpful approaches.
Experts haven’t reached any definite conclusions about how empathy leads to anxiety, or vice versa, but research suggests a link of some kind between them.
This doesn’t mean empathy is bad or that you should block out feelings to enjoy good emotional health. It does, however, make it important to expand your emotional regulation skills and learn helpful ways to manage difficult feelings.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.