When I invited a friend to a comedy show recently and she declined, I was curious to know why she couldn’t make it. She explained that she never attended comedy shows because the experience was too difficult for her. “I start getting so nervous for the comedian and worried about if they feel like people are laughing enough. It’s so stressful!”
I could relate. That feeling you get when a character in a movie makes a stupid mistake or completely embarrasses themselves? The cringe feeling used to overwhelm me so much that I’d literally have to hide my eyes.
Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). Empath. Anxious. Co-dependent. Terms to describe those of us who feel other people’s feelings strongly are a dime a dozen, and not always flattering.
But what makes some of us experience other people’s emotions so intensely while others don’t? To explain, let’s get into some brain science.
The key may actually be in something called the vagus nerve, a long and mighty cranial nerve that runs from our brain stem down to our colon. The vagus nerve has gotten a lot of attention in recent years because of the realization of how vital it is in mental health.
The vagus nerve and the signals it’s constantly sending are responsible for the function of several internal organs. It plays an important role in our autonomic nervous system too, which is why it’s been connected to our stress responses. Ideally, our vagus nerve is strongly toned, which allow us to relax better after stressful events. Weak vagus nerve tone might mean that our bodies are more responsive and dysregulated when we experience stress.
Research shows that people who have a high affective empathy response, or feel the feelings of others more intensely, show a bigger vagal nerve response, likely corresponding to a weaker vagal tone. Higher tone would mean that we aren’t as strongly impacted by the emotions of another.
If that makes it sounds like being an empath is a problem, that’s because it does pose some risks and challenges. Feeling others’ feelings strongly and not being able to recover well from this experience means that our own moods and body systems are consistently negatively impacted. That can be rough for people that are in a constant state of flux depending on how the people around them are functioning.
But of course, we also need empathy both individually and as a society. Without it, we would never feel motivated to help others, our communities would crumble, and our survival would be in peril. But just like most things, too much of a good thing can spell trouble.
So how do we end up with a weaker vagus nerve? Researchers have been exploring ways that that vagal tone develops, and you won’t be shocked to learn that a lot has to do with… our parents.
Researchers at Purdue have learned that children who receive warm, sensitive, attuned parenting show strong vagal tone both then and years later. Interestingly, these children then also were able to demonstrate more compassion because they could regulate their emotions better and sustain their attention.
We can deduce that kids that receive less warm and sensitive parenting, particularly if they have experienced relational trauma, struggle quite a bit to regulate their own feelings, particularly in the presence of others’ feelings. It makes sense too that a child who experiences cold or insensitive parenting is always tuning in closely to the moods of other people as a form of protection. Not only does this become a learned behavior, it dysregulates how they process stress.
This connection between over-empathy and the vagus nerve is in many ways really good news. It offers a pathway for this experience and that helps guide us to ways to help mitigate it too. Specifically, if we find ourselves regularly in flux related to the feelings and moods of others, we can work to strengthen our vagus nerve response as a way to reduce our own distress.
There are lots of ways to work on the vagus nerve (beware of googling this), but the most direct means in through working with the breath. In particular, deep, slow breaths help to reduce your heart rate and stimulate the vagus nerve. This can be enhanced by placing a hand on your belly to ensure that there is a rise and fall (it confirms that it’s deep enough) and by making the exhale longer than the inhale.