I wrote previously that much of my anxiety stems from PTSD, but there are other contributing factors. I’ve come to think of my personal “General” anxiety as a Cerberus: A three-headed monster to keep in balance. Here I go talk about the second “head” of my anxiety monster: Hyper-Empathy, the anxiety it can cause, and how I cope.
Empathy may sound like a wonderful trait, and it is in the right doses. I’d much rather be empathetic than not, but Hyper-Empathy is another beast altogether. Being a Hyper-Empath is defined as “a person that is extremely sensitive to the emotions and energy of other people, animals and places. They have the ability to physically feel the energy field of others and their surroundings.” While the ability to sense where someone is at, put yourself in their shoes, and be compassionate can be a beautiful thing, actually literally feeling what others are feeling, whether you want to or not, can be incredibly intense.
Example: A couple of weeks ago there was a mother and her 7-ish year old son at the grocery store. I don’t know these people or their particular situation, but based off my knowledge and experiences it seemed like the son fell may fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. While we were waiting at the deli counter for meat to be cut, the son had a meltdown. He was screaming and crying and thrashing around, and before I knew it, I was sobbing right there with him, my heart beating out of my chest. The mother asked if I was ok, if he was bothering me. My answer was “Absolutely not, I am just feeling what he is feeling, and what you are feeling too.”. Here he was, a young boy, in public, unable to communicate his feelings and frustrations. Here she was, his mother, unable to interpret what he wanted or calm him down, frustrated at the scene he was causing. Here I was, a total stranger, feeling all of this right along with them.
Hyper-Empathy also becomes very intense in times of national/worldwide crisis or trauma. When the shooting at Pulse Nightclub happened last year, I reached a critical mass. I all but blacked out from the intensity of the anxiety attacks I was having, and eventually had to create a “bunker” in my bathtub until some of the national tension lifted. When Donald Trump got elected, the collective energy of the people I surround myself with was so low, I couldn’t get out of bed the next morning.
This sort of thing happens all the time. I absorb the energy around me, oftentimes before my brain has time to process it. I’ve walked into empty rooms people have recently fought in, and been able to feel it as if I was there listening to them scream at each other. Emotions and actions are energy, and energy doesn’t leave a place when the people that created them do. Over years of dealing with this, I’ve gotten very anxious about exposing myself to new social situations, because I’m never sure what type of energy I’ll be surrounded by, or how I’ll react. I’ve gone through lengthy periods of time where I’m unable to watch movies or TV shows I haven’t already seen, or listen to new music because I’m unsure how it will affect me, and to what degree.
It can be especially draining as an “internet personality”. People, even total strangers tend to feel safe around Hyper-Empaths. We are easy to talk to, and have the ability to put ourselves in others shoes. Because of this, people tend to pour their hearts out, talking about all the pain they feel, the misery others have inflicted, and the negativity in their lives. While venting makes them feel much better, I absorb their energy like a sponge and it has nowhere else to go. When strangers message you their problems every day, it can be a heavy weight to bear. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love talking with and helping people, but when I literally feel the emotions they’re feeling or have felt, it can become too much.
Writing is one of the biggest ways I’ve learned to cope with Hyper-Empathy. I can also talk with my family, who have been around to witness my anxiety attacks and are compassionate listeners when it becomes too much to bear. Ridding my life of negative relationships and people who are prone to drama has been another huge relief. I simply can’t afford to subject myself to being around people who exist in a cloud of negativity – I feel it too deeply and it’s too hard to get out of. I have playlists and podcasts I rely on when I’m especially sensitive, and trusty movies I’ve watched 100 times because I know how they’ll make me feel. I’ve learned to avoid things I know for a fact will leave me depressed, anxious or panicked.
All in all, I am grateful I’m able to feel others, to read the energy of a room before anyone says a word. I’m grateful for the ability to feel deeply, learn to process emotions and help people through hard times. I’m grateful for the intense feelings of elation when things go really well. I’d rather be able to empathize, however intensely, with the world around me then to be unaware and isolated from what it’s experiencing.
Still to come, Anxiety Cerberus Pt. III.