The term “empath” has gained popularity over the last few years as people seek more and more to understand themselves and their stressors.
I myself am an empathic or highly sensitive person and trust me, going decades without understanding what this personality trait was drove my health into the ground.
When I observe clients with the same traits, I make a point to help them deconstruct this.
Empathic people are highly sensitive to others’ emotions, intentions, and often, even physical sensations. They tend to operate from an “others-centered” place in which we constantly look for ways to reciprocate, recognize the needs of others and meet those, and put off our own needs for risk of feeling selfish—or because we’re waiting for our proverbial “prince charming” or “fairy godmother” to rescue us and finally meet our needs.
In some cases, we also attract people who do not have good intentions for us and actively work to harm us (personally, I did not believe this until I experienced it).
While these are honorable traits and most certainly help others as well as society, empaths run a high risk of burnout and increased physical and emotional health concerns than someone who’s not as sensitive.
The nervous system of an empathic person may operate differently because empaths often feel they’re constantly coming up against threats to their wellbeing. These act as fight-or-flight stress responses and can keep them in a state of constant adrenaline rushes, high or low cortisol, gut dysfunction, high blood pressure (and altered heart or kidney function), nutrient deficiencies, and other hormonal imbalances.
For empaths, it can feel like we don’t have a choice in the matter.
But the good news is, we do! It took me decades to realize I had a choice in how I responded to overwhelming stimuli from others, whether they realized they were putting their difficult emotions and intentions on display for the world or not.
I’ve come up with several ways to help empaths protect themselves from the toxic burden of others’ emotions, expectations, and intentions and now make a point to talk sensitive, stressed clients through these as well.
How empaths can protect their nervous system in a stressful world:
- Identify your triggers. When someone’s presence or an interaction with someone begins to stress you out, stop and consider what about them has left you stressed. There’s usually at least one trigger that has us feeling depleted and overwhelmed (for some of us, there are many triggers).Did this person try to bully you into doing something that you didn’t want to do? Were they too pushy and ignored your boundaries? Did they try to shame you? Did they try to guilt you? Did they seem angry? Did they talk over you and dismiss your thoughts and needs? Did they not show appreciation? Did they seem to not trust you or make you not trust yourself?
- Identify the corresponding wound. Once you understand what the trigger was from the interaction, figure out why that trigger bothers you. Did the anger they projected remind you of an angry parent from childhood? Do you feel like no one ever thanks you? Do you carry shame from an abusive relationship or failed situation in your life? Do you never feel good enough? Did you feel invisible? Did you feel chaotic? Did you feel misunderstood? Did you feel like you did not have equal say? Did you feel trapped?
- Understand your reaction to their emotions and work through it. If you were triggered by someone’s anger and, say, you realize it’s because growing up, your father was always angry and you worried about upsetting him, begin to deconstruct those feelings to get past them. So next time you’re in the close vicinity of someone who cannot control their anger, you can consciously recognize your stress pattern and cut it off at the chase. Instead of devolving into your stress response when confronted with this trigger, you can remind yourself that realistically, this person’s emotions cannot hurt you because, in this example, they’re not your angry father and you are not a small child who can be punished.
- Confront the non-empaths and stand your ground. I’m not proud to say this, but many empathic people are pushovers. I mean that in the most loving way possible, and trust me, I myself was one for over 30 years of my life. I bent over backwards for others, didn’t even consider my needs, and did whatever I could to make other people’s lives easier. They walked all over me and I asked if it was comfortable for them.I had also, without realizing it, attracted people who were good at “using up” empaths for their own agendas. It made me stressed and sick and my nervous system was a mess.
Interestingly enough, just as I was acknowledging my own empathic and intuitive abilities (which I have previously spoken about), I was given a message from an Intuitive professional who said my life lesson for the next 12 years was to trust my intuition and “STAND YOUR GROUND,” which he of course said in a very slow dramatic tone.
I laughed when he told me this but thought, “Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.” It wasn’t until I was put in abusive situations back-to-back-to-back in which my old adaption methods of being the wallflower and appeasing others didn’t work that I realized he was right and I had no choice but to stand up for myself or literally end up in the hospital.
I tell you this as a cautionary tale. We must learn to confront the people who are displacing toxic emotions, intentions, and expectations onto us—whether intentionally or unintentionally—and let them know we will not tolerate it.
That said, I also believe in nonviolent communication and behavior. We must be firm both in our actions and words, but we cannot give non-empaths a taste of their own medicine; we cannot be hateful back. We can only be honest and unyielding in order to protect ourselves. Your physical health and your emotional wellbeing is not up for discussion and if we play their games, they’ll just target us more intently.
As with everything in life, getting “good” at being empathic requires constant work.
Many of us were not taught how to enforce healthy boundaries or how to focus on our own needs. As you work to deconstruct the stress triggers in your relationships and environment, you can become better and better at self-care.
Remember, your wellbeing is not up for discussion and recognizing these things is a very important step towards improving your health.
Spring has officially sprung and while some people were recently knee-deep in snow and cold weather, no matter where you live you’re likely feeling a resurgence of energy to just get started!
Spring is one of my favorite seasons because it symbolizes new beginnings and not only the desire to set new intentions but to start actively pursuing them. Chances are, you’re feeling this way too and you’re ready to give your physical health the attention it’s been craving all winter.
It’s important to get clear on your goals—no matter what those may be—and what’s holding you back because recognition keeps us motivated through rough patches, hard work, and stagnation.
There were many times in my journey healing my Hashimoto’s where I felt discouraged and alone, but I never let it allow me to quit. Instead, I persisted until remission was accomplished. I have witnessed many clients do the same with plenty of education and support, plain ol’ elbow grease, and unwavering intention.
Setting Your Intention
To accomplish your health goals, first start out by putting a voice to them.
- What specifically do you want to see improve with your physical or mind-body health?
- Which symptoms are a total drag on your everyday life?
- Which are limiting you from being the person you want to be?
- What is utterly painful or annoying?
- What is it that you truly desire for your health?…
…fewer symptoms, less medication, remission, the ability to enjoy vigorous exercise again, better sleep, fewer depressed moods, less bloat, thicker hair, increased libido?
Put those wishes to paper and map out your end goal.
Make a list, then edit it. Come back to it and add when you notice something new you’d like to resolve and check off the goals you’ve achieved.
This needs to be written down and/or spoken.
When you do this, it becomes tangible and something to work towards. It also allows you to see the areas that need specific solutions. Whenever you’re feeling discouraged, go back to your list and remind yourself what you want for your life and how far you’ve come.
Then keep persisting.
We often have deep desires for ourselves that we never write down or verbalize because we’re scared we’ll fail. “What if I say this and it never happens? How stupid will I feel?”
But again, setting a specific intention is the first place to start. To succeed, we have to also identify and forgo the negative mindsets that hold us back.
There’s no doubt that changing your diet will improve your health; we have the science (and people who’ve lived it) to support this. Instead of operating from a place of, “What if it goes wrong?”…begin with “I’ll try no matter what.”
This isn’t to say that things always go according to plan, but if you have the desire to reach your goals, your health will undoubtedly improve because you’ll always seek solutions and implement those solutions no matter what.
When I was pregnant with my daughter in 2012, I wanted a homebirth. I was a young, first-time mom who had no knowledge of what labor actually felt like. The older women in my life offered me patronizing skepticism because I’d never done it and it’s hard work!
But I knew this was what I wanted for my child, so I persisted into four long days of unmedicated labor with all of the fear, doubt, and insecurities that arose in each contraction—or lack thereof. Early on the fifth day, I birthed a healthy 9-plus pound baby girl and was so thrilled that I’d achieved my goal despite what any naysayers told me.
Any health journey will require the same mindset. Yes I was young, yes I was inexperienced, yes I had high hopes. But I knew it was possible. So I persisted. And I did it.
You have to go into any goal with the mindset that nothing is impossible, nothing out of your reach. This can be one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do because it requires breaking age-old patterns of thought that tell us things like, “This is genetic. There are no solutions. I must live this way forever.” Or, “This approach is too non-traditional.”
Family, friends, doctors, and co-workers often discourage us from even trying, only because they too are limited to their own cyclical, negative thinking. If they haven’t experienced it for themselves or read the research, it may be difficult for them to understand the goals you have for yourself. But remember, there are always solutions—it’s simply up to us to find them.
And it’s important to actively seek out supportive, well-educated allies to help us along in the process.
Hire a Coach
Although I graduated from nutrition school and have a deep love for imparting nutrition research onto my clients, this isn’t the only benefit I offer them.
Hiring a coach is an integral part of your health equation because we’ve been in the trenches ourselves (a good coach will have “been there”) and we understand the journey. We get the ups and downs, bumps in the road, and huge accomplishments. We understand that “this too shall pass.”
When you’re going at your health goals alone, you can become scared of every little setback, be worried about which next steps to take, agonize over every dietary decision, or miss a huge piece of the puzzle altogether—a piece that’s critical for sequencing an approach for lasting results.
Sequencing matters. Big time.
When you have a coach by your side, helping you investigate all factors and piece things together, you can customize a personalized, sequential approach. Adopting random strategies in random order is akin to bailing water out of a leaky boat.
It’s difficult to see things for yourself (even for coaches!) and becomes challenging to see the big picture—the forest for the trees, if you will. As a health coach, I’m not simply creating a specific, strategic diet plan for my clients. I’m also there to hold their hand and say, “This is one bump, it’s not the end of your journey. Do you know how far you’ve come?” It’s seeing a client in their time of vulnerability and saying, “You are so powerful. You’ve got this.”
Action Steps to Take Now
Once you set your specific goals, identify any negative thinking that’s holding you back, and find support, here are the next action steps to take:
1. Undergo an elimination/provocation diet. This involves removing possible food triggers/antigens from your diet for at least three weeks, then reintroducing one by one to chart any reactions. Any foods you are sensitive to and still consuming will affect how your gut, immune system, and hormones function.
2. Identify gut dysfunction. Is your gut “leaky,” allowing food proteins, bacteria, and yeasts into circulation in the bloodstream where they don’t belong? This will perpetuate the allergy-autoimmune-inflammation cycle and also make it difficult to truly digest and absorb the nutrients you’re getting from foods. See #1—doing this diet is a fantastic start in “healing and sealing” the intestinal lining, although many people need additional support cleansing yeast and bacteria from the gut.
3. Support detoxification. We live in a world full of chemical byproducts. No matter how hard we try, they’re inescapable, though we can certainly reduce exposure. Start by weeding out contact with harsh chemicals, plastics, and other immune- and endocrine-disrupting substances. Then add in foods and supplements to support your kidneys, liver, and bowel in their detoxification processes.
4. Deconstruct your stressors. Stress isn’t just the concerns over money, your job, or relationship problems. Stress is the undercurrent of our nervous system in any given situation—and we’re reacting all the time, whether we realize it or not. In every moment, try to tune into your heart rate/blood pressure, thoughts, and breathing to see where you’re stressed and then, begin to work through the problems in the given environment.
Remember, pain is always the signal.
You’re being asked to undergo a healing process to resolve it. It’s up to us to recognize it and act on it.
Set your intentions, identify anything (or anyone) holding you back, work with a coach to guide you in the process, and just get started.
True wellness is about much more than simply the foods we’re eating. Or not eating.
Much of wellness also consists of identifying and overcoming stress triggers. Many of the daily stressors we face come to us in for the form of “energy drains.” That is, situations—and people—that force us into a state of fight or flight (sympathetic) nervous system response, leaving us feeling depleted and weakened both physically and emotionally.
In both the short and long term, this can lead to immune dysregulation, nutrient deficiencies, blood pressure issues (and resultant heart or kidney problems), erratic blood sugar (dysglycemia), and hormonal imbalances. It’s so important to learn to recognize, work through, and overcome any energy drains to break these cycles.
Inevitably, we’re all faced with difficult situations in life. Too often, we view these circumstances as outside of our control, but in my work with clients, I’ve seen how we can reclaim our own personal power, no matter what arises in life.
Instead of feeling small and victimized, we can feel successful and purposeful.
Here’s how to stop energy drains from affecting you:
1. Put a voice to it
That which goes unsaid festers. For example, someone is acting out in coercive, passive aggressive, and catty ways in your relationship. It’s common to internalize these issues instead of speaking out against them. When you internalize, it can lead to continued ill health and symptoms: your blood pressure begins to rise, your heart beats faster, your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline, your muscles tense, you start to sweat and lose minerals, and so on.
But when you speak up, people are forced to recognize the ways their behavior has been unfitting, unhelpful, and inappropriate. Hopefully, it forces them to think before they act given that you’re no longer allowing them to get away with it.
If we never put a voice to what’s draining our energy, it will just keep happening—nothing will change. Only when we speak and use the energy from our fifth chakra (our expressive chakra, where the thyroid lives) can we affect change and make our lives more functional and healthy—as well as help others and the world.
Not everyone possesses the same level of emotional intelligence. What is obvious to you as inappropriate may not be obvious to someone else. Once we speak out against the drains, we (again, hopefully) force others to examine the things they have been acting out.
Maybe they’ll change and maybe they won’t, but no matter—putting a voice to the source of the drain will affirm your experiences, prevent you from quietly enduring it any longer, and perhaps shift others’ consciousness so that they can make a change for the better.
2. Identify the tactics and patterns
People who drain energy from others (“energy vampires,” as Dr. Christiane Northrup calls them) do this for a few reasons. First, they fear loss of control and loss of power or position. They also do this because perhaps they’re not aware they’re doing these things, or because they get off on others’ pain and hardships.
Feel good peptides (bonded amino acids) are released in the bodies of people who have trained themselves to thrive on and enjoy someone else’s pain, so they literally get a chemical “high” from you—and this cycle can be difficult for them to break because it feels so good.
Without recognizing the tactics people who drain our energy use, we’ll keep repeating these situations because they have no incentive to break the pattern (remember, they feel good doing this).
For example, your supervisor won’t communicate her needs or expectations clearly but then punishes you when you don’t do what she secretly wanted. So you’re always in the “wrong” and worry when you’ll face serious repercussions at your job. Or there’s an unspoken understanding between you and your spouse that their needs come first and only after you’ve met them, can you do anything for yourself. Either way, you’ll end up stressed and burnt out.
If the pattern is unspoken expectations, break this cycle by asking for and getting clear information about what these people need or expect from you. They may try to deflect and avoid the conversation, but the conversation needs to happen nonetheless.
Or, if the pattern is lack of reciprocation in relationships, make sure you begin communicating what you need so you aren’t walked all over—and if your needs continue to not be reciprocated, you’re able to make the tough but necessary decision to stay or go. You’ll see it’s not about you but rather about this person who may not be capable of changing their tactics.
3. To become empowered, recognize the lesson
I believe that no matter one’s spiritual or religious beliefs, we can use the difficult circumstances in our lives as guides and teachers. This doesn’t mean every bad thing happens for a reason, but it can mean that no matter what has happened, we can work through it to become empowered versus feeling frustrated, angry, disappointed, sad, or victimized by it the rest of our lives. It’s a way to reclaim ourselves despite the pain.
With clients in Energy Reading sessions, I like to point out patterns and lessons that I see they’re being presented with to help break the cycles. The exact circumstances will differ but the themes are usually the same: you aren’t appreciated and feel resentful or overworked as a result; you get punished for not doing what others want; you get quieted often and talked over, and so on.
Recognizing the themes that accompany the energy drains helps us to break the cycle because we no longer wander through life waiting for the next “bad” thing to happen—the next shoe to drop. Instead, we can take a step back and see the larger spider web, if you will, and detach ourselves instead of getting caught up in it.
4. Enforce your boundaries
You deserve a happy, healthy life, bottom line.
Anything or anyone that infringes on this should be examined and ultimately worked through. If others don’t want to work through such issues with you, or if there’s no way to improve the overall environment in a situation, you have to begin standing up for yourself—because no one else will.
We try to give people the benefit of the doubt, expect they’ll do the right thing, and even hope someone will come to our rescue. In many cases, though, this isn’t realistic. The only one who can save you from the energy drains is yourself. This may not be fair, but it’s necessary.
This will require you to stand up for what you believe is right. This may mean you need to cut ties with commitments that no longer fulfill you, or choose a new career path, or have a serious talk with the people closest to you. Many women have been subdued and talked out of this essential skill, but it’s necessary to relearn it and begin enforcing it.
Whatever it is, remember: you can do it, and if not now, when? What you resist persists.
You absolutely can overcome energy drains, or simply learn to detach rather than being caught off guard by the next one. Once you do, you’ll reclaim an essential part of you that has likely long been tucked away and your physical health will begin to improve—dramatically—for the better.