First off, being an empath doesn’t have to mean you are overloaded. You may, instead, be deeply in tune with and nourishingly connected to nature and the people around you, full of gentleness yet vitality, creative and spiritually fulfilled (one option). However, many empaths find out they are empaths only after going through a crisis of empath overwhelm or overload.
Empath overload can both resemble and (in very small percentage of cases) be the underlying cause of a number of mental, psychosomatic and physical conditions. Not tolerating crowds (a typical sign) may for example look like agoraphobia or autism-type overstimulation; experiencing drastic emotional shifts may resemble a number of mood disorders (such as bipolar or depression); combined with difficult events early in life and confusion over identity (resulting from … well, constantly experiencing other people’s feelings), it may even come across as the clinical signs of borderline personality disorder (BPD). On the physical level, it may both resemble and cause systemic and stress-related issues like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia and various burnout syndromes.
Suffering from any of these does not mean that you are an empath, and the best thing you can do is to exclude all alternatives before seriously considering that (one of the) underlying issue(s) may be … psychic radar overload.
One of the much more likely factors involved is that you are a highly sensitive or emotionally intense person, and as such a “canary in the coal mine” respond to adverse environmental and emotional triggers before others do. There is also loads to learn about having this kind of nature and a lot you can do for yourself and to honour your gifts. (Will be adding resource sections over time.)
In the list of signs that follows, I’m trying to highlight what seems distinct about empath overload as opposed to other sources of fatigue/burnout.
1. Discomfort in crowded spaces, typically malls, airports, etc. Sometimes to the point where walking down a street or going to the store is painful.
This can have a number of reasons, ranging from being highly sensitive (HSP) to being on the autism spectrum. It can also be caused by having had bad experiences in these spaces, or feeling unsafe in them for any reason.
When is it likely a sign of empath overload?
- If you are aware of having your emotions (or “feeling of being”) switch abruptly from one state to another every time (or even occasionally when) the next person walks by; every time you look at someone new, or (killer for me) every time you look someone in the eye. Many empaths report feeling that in malls and other crowded spaces. In the heyday of my empath overload, I experienced that when walking down city streets.
- You may not be aware of this happening; I wasn’t until it became extreme. Or you may regard it as usual – I did until someone went to great pains to explain to me it’s not. Do you sense a clear, distinct shift of atmosphere in your feeling-of-being depending on who is in your proximity? Then a lot of people in your proximity may cause a painful state of overload that you find hard to describe or explain, a.k.a. empath overload.
- In my case that manifested as spaced-outness, irritability, crawling-out-of-my-skin (skin seems to be significant for many empaths), and just being absolutely no good after a day in crowds without being able to say why (no fear, not really noise or anything else).
- For me crowds were sometimes so intense that I didn’t register “switching channels” but just a grating coarseness that leads to tuning myself out of my bodily sensations (dissociating). If you don’t tune out, you probably experience in crowds what I describe in the next point for group settings.
2. Profound, unexplained exhaustion after spending time in group settings.
This was the big issue for me. In fact, I built my life around working at home because when trying to take professional trainings, after spending even 5-6 hours (don’t mention 8!) in constant social interaction, I would literally floor out – lie flat on the floor and stare at the ceiling until my energy gradually settled and returned.
This wasn’t because I didn’t like the people or because they were unfriendly; they were respectful individuals with shared interests, interacting in a relaxed setting.
Not tolerating groups can have many causes.
- You might be a highly sensitive person (HSP) experiencing sensory overload from noise, chaos, movement (see above).
- You may be more interested in activities that are solitary and/or require intense focus (despite the current extraversion-cult, that’s totally acceptable). While that’s in part true of me (I enjoy focussed activities like writing or meditating), I was certainly craving to participate in some group activities.
- You may be trying to join groups that don’t jive with you (no shared interests, outlooks, vibes).
- You may have had negative experiences in group settings (e.g. being the only immigrant kid in class, a trans teen, or being excluded for some other reason)
- Frequently related to the above, you may be wanting to be around people but feeling “less than” and/or fearing their judgment (what they call social anxiety). After hours of secretly fearing you’ll be belittled, of course you’re exhausted.
- Similarly, you may feel forced to play a role; after hours of inauthenticity, you might feel exhausted.
Note that any or all of these can coexist with empath overload. When should you suspect empath overload?
- When it doesn’t seem like it’s (mainly) any of the above.
- When your emotions flicker through all channels as described above.
- When your physical sensations go crazy in groups in ways you don’t understand … not just being tense/nervous, but feeling spaced out, displaced, uplifted and pushed down in strange and unpredictable ways – like a leaf in the wind or a ping-pong ball between a hundred paddles.
- When you have difficulty even sensing yourself in between all that. You are so absorbed into (unconsciously) following all the energetic ping-pong being played around you that you don’t have any bandwidth left to register (or even wonder) how you feel.
- I often tend to feel all that through the (energetic) skin. If you tune into your feeling-of-being, it can almost feel like a hail storm on bare skin (you may even be able to locate specific body regions it concentrates on) – something rough touching you, even though nothing rough is touching you. I actually get rashes on my physical skin, too.
- You can tell the difference from other types of sensory overload in that (in my experience) sensory overload from noise or light tends to be concentrated in the head, near the sense organs.
- Still, this may be hard to distinguish from general low-energy, fatigue conditions.
3. That exhaustion itself may even have a specific flavour.
You know what physical exhaustion feels like (to you); perhaps you know what sensory exhaustion feels like to you (e.g. when your head is humming after having spent time in a noisy place and even minor noises irritate you); and perhaps you know what emotional exhaustion feels like to you (e.g. the inner depletion after a lengthy argument with your girlfriend).
“Empath exhaustion” I’d say is closest to the latter; it can feel like a depletion at a really deep, inner, tender emotional-physiological-energetic level; although it also resembles sensory exhaustion in that it might make you irritable and sensitive to noises and lights. You not only want to be in a quiet place, you also want to be alone and not near anything (or anyone) with an unpleasant emotional charge.
4. Being unexplainably drained by the mere presence of certain people.
Perhaps relatedly to the above, you may develop “allergies” to certain people or energies. E.g. at the height of my empath burnout, sensing an energy of aggression or depression in someone made it virtually impossible for me to be in the same room with them. I’d literally leave and offend people for not being able to stand the emotional charge I sensed.
Note that this is not because that person did or said anything unpleasant or even acted aggressive or depressed. It happened with total strangers who were friendly and polite, and who didn’t even talk to me. It was the felt quality of their presence that was unbearable, pure and simple.
If this happens to you, I’d say it’s either a serious issue with projection (which can intermingle with or invite empath perception), a trauma trigger (covered some of that here) or serious empath overload. To figure this out, you need to know yourself really well. In my case, projection perhaps tends to feel more like an instant, simple irritation that does not involve an intense change in the felt sense of my body (and self). But this requires a whole separate article. (Btw. yes, empaths also project!)
5. You feel you’ve “changed your skin” after talking with someone, to the degree that sometimes you feel like you don’t know who you are.
Example: In my case take that literally. When I was a kid, sometimes I’d play with another kid for a few intense afternoon hours, and then upon leaving sense that somehow their face is superimposed over mine (think quantum superposition) and somehow I’m looking out at the world through their eyes now. I don’t mean this metaphorically; it was a near-physical (energetic) sensation.
In adulthood that’s occasionally happened, too, after looking someone in the eye too long or too deep. I’d feel I’m peeking out through their pupil now, not mine – not in an abstract sense, but in a felt sense; it actually gives the skin and muscles around my eyes a different feel.
Mashallah that doesn’t happen all the time. It doesn’t have to be that extreme. You may instead have a vague, yet bodily sense that you’re a bit different than pre-contact – maybe you’re somehow lighter and more nimble (if that’s what your conversation partner felt like); maybe you’re heavier, more clumsy, yet warmer on the inside (if this is who you talked with). Maybe you suddenly feel younger or older, stronger or weaker (physically). Maybe your mind feels quicker or more diffuse, softer or more rigid. Maybe your feet stand on the ground differently, or your fingers suddenly feel like those of a pianist (or a butcher).
Note 1: I’m perhaps predominantly a physical empath (hence developed medical intuitive skills), so if you are an emotional empath you may experience the equivalent on the level of emotions.
Note 2: Yes, if you experience this, you may think you’re crazy. At some point I felt like I’m Frankenstein, stitched together from fragments of various peoples’ bodies (experiences). Wondering now if Mary Shelley was an empath, too.
While in themselves, these don’t have to be unpleasant sensations – some can be thrilling and pleasant and even useful in picking up new skills and ways of being, I’ve found – if they are going on all the time, it’s not hard to see that you may feel confused about who you are and in distress – as it’s so hard to weave a coherent storyline through your life, or even your day.
6. Unexplained, random physical (or mental) symptoms that pop up out of nowhere and dissipate without treatment, or on the other hand persist despite treatment.
Example 1: When I was in kindergarten, one day a girl turned up with a bandaged knee. After that, my knee hurt all day.
Example 2: One winter I started getting random fits of vertigo, seemingly unrelated to anything. I noticed, though, that somehow they seemed to occur more whenever I e-mailed a new friend in another country. I then learnt that she had frequent vertigo that she was seeing a physiotherapist for.
Of course there can be so many other reasons for unexplained symptoms, and please do your best to uncover any medical cause and remove it. However, if you keep picking up symptoms which seem to appear and disappear at random, and after massive checkups your doctor insists that there is nothing physically wrong with you, while it seems that every time you have a migraine, your best friend does, too, then perhaps go down the road of psychic self-enquiry before taking more pills.
7. All these points taken together mean high levels of emotional stress. After years of this you may develop typical stress-related diseases (adrenal/chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, rashes, allergies, digestive issues, even autoimmune conditions).
Having a stress related disease does not mean that empath overwhelm is the source. But “mysterious” physical syndromes can part of its picture.
So if that looks like you, what to do? First thing is to know that it can get (much) better, and if you are getting closer to recognising potential causes or contributing factors, even if you are not an empath but realise you are sensitive and that needs some love and attention, that is a huge step. For some people, the realisation is enough to start working things out from there through awareness and practice. For others it takes more detailed strategies and support.
Suggestions for empaths:
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