There’s a difference between feeling empathy and being an empath. Empathic people are capable of imagining what others are feeling and putting themselves in their shoes. An empath, on the other hand, is capable of absorbing and actually feeling other people’s emotions.
They’re as sensitive to the world around them as they are to people’s feelings, so there are plenty of triggers for empaths around every corner. Feeling triggered can cause reactions ranging from mild distress to panic attacks.
People have their individual triggers, but some things are shared among highly sensitive people and empaths. Here’s what they are and how to best deal with them.
Common Triggers For Empaths
Usually, we talk about being triggered to describe a psychological reaction to something that makes you recall a traumatic event. It can be anything that reminds you of experiences like past abuse or the loss of a loved one resulting in mental health symptoms.
When it comes to empaths, however, a trigger is also something that causes them to become overwhelmed without necessarily calling forward some kind of trauma. Being aware of your own triggers can help you avoid them, and if you do face them, keep your reactions to them in check.
Triggers for empaths can be related to their senses or their own and other people’s feelings.
Sensory triggers for empaths
Empaths simply feel more and are aware of things around them that most people aren’t. Because they’re so sensitive, they pick up more on what’s going on around them. They can react to multiple triggers, each making their distress worse.
Common triggers for empaths and highly sensitive people (HSPs) can include anything that overwhelms their senses and affects their bodies.
For an empath, it can be difficult to handle one person whose emotions are intense. When they’re around multiple people, this gets even more challenging. Sensing one person’s feelings is complicated, and feeling what many people are feeling can cause distress.
Being in a crowd can make an empath feel surrounded. They almost feel attacked by the multitude of emotions coming from all sides. For this reason, empaths often feel like withdrawing from crowds or avoiding them altogether.
2. Noisy environments
The more triggers an empath faces, the more overwhelmed they become. The more they’re overwhelmed, the more sensitive to triggers they become. It’s a vicious cycle, and being in an environment with many triggers can cause an empath to experience deep distress.
Noisy environments can range from public transportation to offices to farmer’s markets. Any place with many people, machinery, or activity can become noisy and chaotic to the point that an empath is unable to deal with it.
When in traffic, there’s an enormous amount of pressure to react quickly and not make mistakes. The possibility of putting other people and themselves in danger makes an empath feel anxiety.
As much as the empath is paying attention, other people sometimes don’t, and this unpredictability is another source of stress. Unexpected situations such as traffic jams that can cause anything from accidents to being late make traffic difficult for an empath as well.
Physical, mental, and emotional fatigue can make anyone more sensitive and easily affected by the environment and people. An empath’s sensitivity to everything going on around them increases, and it becomes easier to get triggered.
For an empath, it becomes difficult to practice self-care, which means that they might become incapable of avoiding other people’s negative feelings. This can exhaust them even further and lead to an endless loop of fatigue and oversensitivity.
When you’re not feeling 100%, everything in your life suffers. When you’re unable to function properly, it’s difficult to focus on yourself, your work, and other people. It becomes even more difficult for an empath because they’re already someone who needs more energy than others.
In addition to causing a lack of motivation and energy, illness also causes anxiety about health and concern about how things will turn out and if everything is going to be fine. Prone to worry, an empath needs things to be stable, and illness is anything but.
Things like caffeine and alcohol and some types of medications can increase the chance of triggering negative emotions for an empath.
All types of stimulants can increase anxiety, sensitivity, and vulnerability. Stimulants have a physical effect of increased energy, faster heart rate, and different physical sensations, which can contribute to feelings of uneasiness in an empath.
7. Low blood sugar
Symptoms of low blood sugar can be the same as symptoms of anxiety – feeling nauseous and shaky, increased heart rate, or irritability. This can cause panic and make an empath more sensitive.
For this reason, eating regular healthy meals is even more important for everyone, particularly empaths. Making life choices that reduce the possibility of becoming overwhelmed by negative emotions is key for highly sensitive people.
8. Being too busy
Having too much work puts pressure on everyone. Overscheduling, multitasking, having an unmanageable workload, or an overly demanding environment causes helplessness and inability to function to the best of your ability.
Empaths feel pressure more keenly than others, so they need to be extra careful about how they handle their work requirements. Not taking on more than they can handle will help, and time management is of great importance.
Having to do things at a pace that doesn’t feel natural can make an empath panic and feel a sense of chaos. When they’re required to rush whatever they’re doing, empaths feel like they cannot deal with their reactions to their environment and other people.
Being very sensitive, empaths try to keep their own responses under control, but feeling pressure can make them unable to handle their feelings. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed and triggered.
10. Sensory overload
Sensory overload is the feeling that your senses are receiving more information than your brain can process. This makes you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope and causes you to enter panic mode.
An empath, whose sensitivity to outside stimuli is already heightened, can easily become triggered by intense sensations. It can be particularly difficult to handle them when more than one sense feels under attack.
• Temperatures that are too hot or too cold temperature, temperature changes, humidity
• Bright lights, loud sounds: crowds, violent and disturbing content on TV, loud music, shouting, people who speak too loudly
• Strong smells, pleasant and unpleasant
• Touching unpleasant things, rough fabric, unexpected and prolonged physical contact
Emotional triggers for empaths
Empaths are highly intuitive and feel the energy of other people and the world around them deeply. This isn’t a bad thing – an empath’s ability to understand on such a profound level can have an incredible effect.
Negative energy and intense or negative emotions can be confusing and distressing for empaths. Often, they can’t be sure if what they’re feeling are their own emotions or if they’re coming from someone else.
Still, most empaths like being the way they are, even if being an empath has its downsides. The key to being a functioning and thriving empath is learning how to handle their triggers and manage their emotions.
1. Relationship management
Empaths can have difficulty with intimate relationships simply because of the depth of their feelings. Emotional interactions aren’t the same for them and other people – an empath has to handle their own feelings and the feelings of another person.
Even when those feelings are positive, they can become too much. Overwhelming emotions can make intimacy difficult, and in the case of negative emotions, empaths can end up feeling devastated.
They particularly have difficulty handling these aspects of relationships:
• Feeling too needed
2. Other people’s emotions.
For emotional sponges like empaths, one-on-one interactions are difficult enough, and public places can be overwhelming. Unsure whether they’re feeling their own feelings or the feelings of others, empaths can become confused, distressed, and unable to figure out what to do.
Deep compassion is one of the empath’s abilities that makes them so valuable and capable of making other people’s lives better. Empaths make exceptional friends, spouses, and family members. Empaths often feel bad when they can’t help others solve their problems.
However, unless they make sure to first take care of themselves, they can have a hard time handling their empathy, and the emotions of others will only overwhelm and disturb them.
When it comes to negative feelings, empaths tend to internalize them and suffer along with the person they got them from. An empath who is able to manage their feelings can help others process and handle their feelings instead.
Here are some emotions that can be particularly difficult to handle for empaths when people around them feel them.
3. Other people’s behavior
Empaths are deeply affected by other people’s behavior. Spending time with obnoxious people who don’t care about other people’s comfort, people who take pleasure in controlling others, or people who seek drama everywhere can be especially hard to deal with for empaths.
The worst type of person for an empath is a narcissist, however. Narcissists seek unconditional validation, and empaths are happy to provide it. Things turn dysfunctional really quickly, though, since narcissists want everything until nothing is left in an empath.
Judith Orloff, MD, is a psychiatrist and author of several books that deal with living as an empath, including The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People. She says that empathy is on a spectrum, with narcissists on one end and empaths on the other.
Narcissism creates chaos that empathy has to bring under control. This toxic dynamic is exhausting, overwhelming, and destructive for an empath. Their emotional response to a narcissist’s demands leads to self-doubt, burnout, and trauma.
Stress can be the cause of major mental and physical difficulties for anyone. All people experience it, and learning to deal with stress is an important life skill. When under any amount of stress, an empath feels its consequences more intensely than others.
Even happy events can cause stress, for example, getting married. Sometimes things that don’t seem significant can cause stress and leave you wondering what happened. For instance, seeing something disturbing on social media or not being able to find something you misplaced.
Empaths can become stressed when things that are happening around them become too much, such as:
• when too many things are going on
• feeling under pressure
• when they have no time for breaks
• feeling trapped in overstimulating situations
• situations out of their control
• too much responsibility
• going through a major change
All of this can lead to becoming exhausted, triggered, and unable to function properly. For this reason, stress management is a requirement for empaths.
Setting boundaries and finding things they enjoy doing, such as spending time in nature, can be incredibly healing and helpful in relieving stress.
5. No alone time
One of the most common traits of empaths is that they’re often introverted. They need alone time to process their feelings and recharge.
Interacting with others, especially dealing with other people’s feelings on a profound level, saps an empath’s energy. They can’t function until they replenish what they’ve spent.
Unlike introverts who aren’t highly sensitive, empaths also need time away from other people to weed through what they’re feeling and balance their own feelings with what they’ve picked up from others. Frequently taking breaks from other people can help an empath maintain balance.
If this time spent alone isn’t available, empaths shut down. They become irritable, unable to concentrate, overly sensitive, and eventually, they burn out and experience emotional exhaustion. This can result in depression, withdrawal, and loss of motivation.
Managing Empath Triggers
For sensitive individuals, learning how to manage their triggers is invaluable. This is the only way to handle day-to-day tasks successfully without going through the emotional turmoil and distress of being triggered.
Empaths especially need to pay close attention to their triggers, how to avoid them, and how to handle them if that isn’t possible.
The first step in managing triggers is self-awareness. Knowing your triggers is key when you want to avoid them or lessen their effects. Being familiar with what triggers you can be the difference between losing control and staying calm when things are less than ideal.
The best way to practice mindfulness is to be present in the moment and pay attention to what is happening at that moment. This makes it easier to recognize a potential trigger and prepare to deal with it. It’s much easier to cope when you know what’s coming than to be hit with it unexpectedly.
Learning to deal with triggers once they happen is an essential tool in regaining control over your feelings as soon as possible. You can prepare for this through regular meditation and long-term practice of handling and managing your emotions.
In the short term, when a triggering situation occurs, you can take certain steps that help you respond to it.
1. Recognize what’s happening.
Try to recognize not only the fact that you’re being triggered but what caused it and what exactly is taking place, from your physical to your emotional reactions.
2. Leave the situation.
If it’s in any way possible, remove yourself from a triggering situation or away from the people who caused it. Find any excuse to get some space to recuperate.
3. Get your bearings.
Now that you’re away from the triggering situation, you can start to recover from it. It’s very important to use techniques that make it possible not to think about the situation.
4. Deal with the situation.
Until you’re feeling better and are able to deal with the situation, it will only cause you to become triggered again. When the effects of being triggered have passed, you can work on handling whatever caused it.
Practicing self-care is absolutely essential for anyone’s well-being. Empaths who have higher self-care requirements simply because their emotional load is higher than most people’s should never compromise on this.
Taking care of your own needs and finding ways to fulfill them is vital for your mental health. It’s what helps you protect yourself and enables you to extend that care to other people.
Self-care is different for everyone, as it depends on your needs, but these are some examples of things necessary for everyone.
• Taking care of your physical health. (Eating healthy, sleeping regularly, exercising.)
• Allowing yourself mental breaks. (Hobbies, spending time in nature, alone time.)
• Having healthy boundaries. (Learning to say no, establishing your needs and limits, expecting respect)
• Creating a support system. (Being able to rely on others.)
Being an empath can be exceptionally rewarding.The amount of love an empath is capable of is extraordinary: it’s easy for them to understand others and help them heal and thrive. It’s a gift, but one that comes with a price.
Feeling so deeply and widely is the cause of many triggers for empaths. Because they sense everything around them, it becomes difficult to filter unwanted sensations and emotions. Becoming overwhelmed and triggered is quick to happen and slow to recover from.
For this reason, empaths need to learn how to recognize and handle their triggers before they become too hard to deal with.