Hence, if you have this syndrome, then you may suffer due to someone else’s stress, pain and trauma and not experience your own stress or trauma. Also identified as empathic reactivity, this signifies that excessive amounts of empathy can be detrimental for us. “With empathy, you will feel their stress, anxiety, and anger in your body. You might feel their pain emotionally and physically. If you let these emotions sit in your body, your body and mind can be emotionally hijacked,” explains psychology expert and author Marcia Reynolds, PsyD. According to research, uncontrolled and unchecked empathy can elevate the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, causing problems in expressing, identifying and regulating emotions. The more you open yourself up to absorbing others emotions and experiences, the more vulnerable you will become to feelings of hopelessness, emptiness and depression. “Not only will this lead to burnout, you can break the bond of trust you were hoping to strengthen,” adds Dr. Reynolds.
However, it’s not just you, excessive empathy can also affect the other person as well. No matter how pure your intentions are, thanks to your hyper empathy syndrome, your efforts to resolve the other person’s problems can create relationship issues, unless they are willing to accept your help. Your drive and desire to help and ‘fix’ the person in need can make you blind to the fact that your behavior and actions may be seen as intrusive and forceful. It can make the person feel unworthy, useless, humiliated and disrespected. Your act of kindness and support can worsen their mental state.
Read also: How to Avoid the Empathy Trap
How hyper empathy develops
It is believed that empathy tends to develop during our early childhood and often toddlers exhibit complex empathic behaviors, like concern for the wellbeing of a parent, caregiver, sibling or even a pet. According to a research paper, “a multitude of studies have provided evidence that very young children are, in fact, capable of displaying a variety of rather sophisticated empathy related behaviors.” They can express “verbal and facial concern” and participate in different helping behaviors. However, empathy is still a learned behavior, even though we may be born with this trait, explains author Peg Streep. Children often tend to learn empathic behavior from their parents by learning to identify emotional cues in their caregivers. But when a parent or a caregiver ignores the emotional needs of a child or neglects them, then it can distort their ability to empathize with others. Children who do not experience a secure attachment with their primary caregivers and are unable to form an intimate connection with their parents, can have an impaired sense of empathy. When a child develops an avoidant attachment or anxious attachment pattern instead of a secure attachment with their parents, then, as adults, they may “lack the ability to moderate emotions and may end up being swept up in someone else’s emotions. That isn’t empathy,” adds Peg Streep.
One 2019 study found that the human ability to empathize is influenced by biological dispositions, caregiving patterns and experiences, reactive temperament & chronic adversity experienced during early developmental stages. It was even observed that stress, anxiety and trauma experienced during childhood can lead to hyper empathy. According to another 2018 study, childhood trauma can cause “an increase in trait empathy in adulthood.” It was found that trauma not only causes anxiety & fear about the future, it can also lead to elevated empathy levels and high sensitivity towards others’ suffering. The “findings suggest that the experience of a childhood trauma increases a person’s ability to take the perspective of another and to understand their mental and emotional states, and that this impact is long-standing,” explains the study. The researchers also found that the level of empathy positively correlated with the intensity of the trauma.
Read also: A Relationship Without Empathy
According to author and former psychotherapist Sandra L. Brown, M.A., genes and brain chemicals can also influence our empathic abilities. She explains that brain chemicals can influence our attachment styles, relationships, mental health, long term & short term memory and even our learned and inherent fear. She adds that brain chemicals and deficits manage what level of empathy, conscience, compassion and guilt we may have. Brown explains “We are coming to understand that hyper-empathy has much to do with her innate temperament (you come into the world wired with the personality you have), genetic predispositions to high or low empathy, and brain chemistry configurations that contribute to levels of empathy.”
Hyper empathy & mental health
Experts believe that people who can feel high levels of empathy are more prone to suffer from mental health issues and psychiatric disorders. Researchers have found that individuals with hyper empathy and high sensitivity are at a higher risk of experiencing anxiety, interpersonal guilt, personal distress, anhedonia/misery symptoms, fear/arousal symptoms, and depression. This is because they are more likely to internalize the negative emotions of others. Empathy is an important interpersonal skill set, which “may also, paradoxically, confer risk for depression and anxiety when present at extreme levels and in combination with certain individual characteristics or within particular contexts,” explain the researchers.
Apart from these, exceptionally elevated levels of empathy can also lead to other mental health issues, such as –
- Insecure, anxious attachment
- Anxiety disorders such as social anxiety
- Unhealthy personal boundaries
- Lack of self-compassion and self-empathy
- Victim mentality
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)