Do you absorb other people’s emotions or “energy”? Here’s why, and how to control it — from the world’s top empath researcher.
Have you ever stepped into a room and the mood just brought you down? Or been enjoying a gathering until a certain person walked in — even someone you didn’t know — and suddenly, you just felt unsettled?
You might be absorbing the moods and emotions of other people — or their “energy” — and if it happens often, it can leave you feeling stressed, exhausted, or emotionally frazzled. It can also feel like it’s out of your control — something you can’t turn off — but the truth is, there are ways to protect yourself.
And they start with understanding why it’s happening in the first place.
The Science of Absorbing Emotions
Scientists refer to the process of absorbing emotions as emotional contagion. According to a 2021 paper by social psychologist Carolina Herrando, emotional contagion is often positive — it helps us communicate excitement and spread good moods, not just bad ones. (Herrando points out it’s even used in advertising to help sell products.) Even when emotional contagion spreads negative emotions, the effects aren’t always bad. It’s actually the first step in empathy, for example, which improves nearly any situation and is the foundation of morality.
Everyone has the ability to absorb emotions, but it’s especially common for highly sensitive people (HSPs), who have higher levels of empathy on average, and empaths, who are likely at the high end of the empathy continuum even among HSPs. And this ability tends to be heightened when they’re at a social event, around coworkers, or in crowds — places where there are more emotions to be “caught.” If HSPs and empaths are around people or places filled with peace and love, their bodies assimilate these emotional “energies” and flourish. However, absorbing negative emotions and attitudes can feel like a physical assault on their senses.
(Throughout this article, I’ll use the common shorthand “energy” to refer to the emotions and attitudes of people, or the atmosphere and mood of a place, all of which can be picked up via emotional contagion.)
If you’re someone who absorbs energy, the only way you can fully enjoy being around others is to learn to protect your sensitivity and find balance. As an empath myself — and as a medical doctor and researcher — I want to help you cultivate this capacity, be comfortable with it, and start seeing it as a strength.
Personally, I’ve always been hyper-attuned to other people’s moods, both the good and the bad. Before I learned to protect my energy, I felt those strong feelings lodge in my body and stay there. After being in crowds, I’d leave feeling anxious, depressed, or tired. When I got home, I’d just crawl into bed, yearning for peace and quiet. Can you relate? If so, here’s what actually works to stop it.
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6 ‘Rules’ to Protect Your Energy as an Empath or HSP
Here are six tips for sensitive people from my book, The Ecstasy of Surrender, to help you manage your sensitivity more effectively and stay centered without absorbing negative energies.
1. Move away from the source of the negativity.
This is simple yet extremely effective. Distance yourself by at least twenty feet, and see if you feel relief. Don’t err on the side of not wanting to offend anyone — we’re talking about your energy and sanity here. If you’re at a social gathering, try not to sit next to the identified “energy vampire.” Physical closeness will only increase the absorption of negative feelings.
2. Surrender to your breath.
If you suspect that you’re picking up someone else’s energies, concentrate on your breath for a few minutes. (here are tips on mindful mediation and breathing.) Focusing on your breath is centering, and it connects you to your power. In contrast, holding your breath keeps negativity lodged in your body.
To purify fear and pain, exhale stress and inhale calm. Picture unwholesome emotions as a gray fog lifting from your body, and wellness as a clear light entering it. Trust me, this will produce quick results.
3. Practice “guerilla meditation.”
Before the loud, crowded social event, be sure to meditate, centering yourself, connecting to your spirit, and feeling your heart. Use this time to get strong mentally and emotionally. If you encounter any emotional or physical distress while at the event, act fast and meditate for a few minutes.
You can do this by taking refuge in the bathroom or an empty room. If it’s public, close the stall. Meditate there — this is what’s known as “guerilla mediation,” a five-minute act of mindfulness that can be done anywhere at any time. Calm yourself. Focus on positivity and love. This has saved me many times at social functions when I began to feel completely depleted by others.
4. Set healthy limits and boundaries.
Limit the time you spend hanging out with — and listening to — stressful people; you don’t have to make a big deal out of it, simply choose to spend less time with them. And get comfortable saying “no,” especially when someone asks too much of you. Set clear limits and boundaries with others, nicely cutting them off at the pass if they get critical or mean. Remember: “no” is a complete sentence; it’s not necessary to explain why, unless you choose to do so.
Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System?
HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?
That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.
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5. Visualize protection around you.
Research has shown that visualization can heal both the mind and the body. And it’s a practical form of protection that many people use, including health care practitioners. One of my favorite visualization techniques involves imagining an envelope of white light surrounding your entire body, protecting you from negative energy. Or with extremely toxic people, you may want to visualize a fierce black jaguar patrolling your energy field, keeping out intruders.
6. Define and honor your empathic needs.
Safeguarding your sensitivity is one of the best tips for HSPs and empaths. In a calm, collected moment, make a list of your top five most emotionally rattling situations. Then formulate a plan for handling them — with specific action steps — so you don’t fumble in the moment. Reflective and ever thoughtful, HSPs and empaths benefit from advanced planning.
Here are some practical examples of what to do in situations that might stymie you as an HSP and/or empath:
- Even extroverted highly sensitive people and empaths have a social limit! If your comfort level is three hours max for socializing — even if you adore the people — take your own car or have some other alternate transportation plan so you’re not left stranded. This is especially important if your partner is not highly sensitive and has no problem chatting for hours.
- If crowds are overwhelming, eat a high-protein meal beforehand (this grounds you) and sit in the far corner of, say, the theater or party, where there’s less stimulation — avoid the dead center.
- Some empaths are highly sensitive to scents, so if you’re overwhelmed — for instance, by perfume — give yourself permission to do what you need to do. You might nicely request that your friend refrains from wearing it around you. If you can’t avoid it, stand near a window or take frequent breaks to catch a breath of fresh air outdoors.
If all else fails and you absorb stressful or negative energy, take a bath or shower when you get home. My bath is my sanctuary after a busy day. It relaxes me, washing away everything from bus exhaust to long hours of air travel to pesky emotional symptoms I’ve taken on from others.
Want to learn more? Check out my book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People.
You might like:
- How I Learned to Stop Absorbing Other People’s Emotions
- 13 Signs That You’re an Empath
- Why Do HSPs Absorb Other People’s Emotions?
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