A small but growing body of neuro-scientific research confirms the existence of “empaths” and “highly sensitive people”. Here’s what to do if you’re one of them.
Do you feel deeply affected by the suffering of others or pick up easily on vibes around you? Maybe you avoid negative social media and news because of the way it affects you? What makes one person more sensitive than others? And what problems or potential advantages might we face if we’re one of the more sensitive crowd?
Dr Judith Orloff, a US-based psychiatrist and author, has spent decades investigating such questions. It was a search that grew out of her own experience. As a child Orloff felt there was something wrong with her. “I was criticised for being overly sensitive and told to get a thicker skin,” she says. Crowded places, like shopping malls, with their noise and overstimulation, exhausted her. They also caused anxiety, depression, aches and pains. Unsurprisingly, Orloff preferred spending time with one best friend over groups. A turning point came when the young Orloff met Dr Thelma Moss while working at an intuition lab at UCLA. Moss was the first adult to frame Orloff’s sensitivity as a positive ability. “She told me I was an intuitive empath,” Orloff recalls. “It felt liberating to know there wasn’t something ‘wrong’ with me and I had nothing to be ashamed about. A whole new exciting world opens up when empaths discover who and what they are and can begin to embrace themselves.”
Orloff went on to coin the term “energy psychiatry” to explain how some people’s mental health can be affected by subtle energies in their environment. Her books, including Second Sight and Thriving as an Empath and a growing number of blogs and films have given those who feel more deeply attuned to their environment a voice and sense of validation and empowerment.
Empaths, HSPs and intuitives
The “empath and sensitives movement” (as it’s become known) has its own lingo to explain and differentiate what more sensitive people experience. There are highly sensitive people (HSP) or energy absorbers for instance, empaths, intuitives and psychics. “HSPs and empaths are not the same thing,” Orloff clarifies. While they tend to get lumped together, they’re separate (though often related) traits. Sensitive people have an increased reaction to external stimuli including other emotions, whereas empaths have a greater than usual capacity to share another’s feelings — but from their own framework.
Research suggests most of us — even psychopaths — have the capacity for empathy. Orloff describes it as a spectrum with each of us sitting at different levels. “There’s the middle of the spectrum which is the regular person who has empathy where their heart goes out for other people in pain or in joy. A little bit up on the spectrum are the highly sensitive people and then you have even higher on the spectrum, the empath,” she says. HSPs are highly sensitive to all the sensory elements of the environment, including light, sound and other sources of stimulation, Orloff says. She says empaths possess all of that plus a high level of intuition: “They tend to be sponges who take the energy of others into their own body.” Orloff says it’s possible and common to be both an empath and a HSP. But not all HSPs are empaths.
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