By Stacey Colino Are you an empath?\u00a0You might consider yourself an empathic person but there\u2019s a difference between having empathy and being an empath (a highly sensitive person who easily absorbs other people\u2019s feelings, energy and stress). \u201cHaving empathy means your heart goes out to another person who\u2019s experiencing joy or pain,\u201d explains Judith Orloff, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of the book,\u00a0The Empath\u2019s Survival Guide.\u00a0By contrast,\u00a0\u201cempaths actually feel other people\u2019s emotions and physical symptoms in their bodies, without the usual defenses most people have.\u201d In a study at the McGill Centre for Research on Pain at McGill University in Montreal, researchers found that when people with the highest empathy scores were exposed to a heat stimulus after watching someone else experience the same uncomfortable stimulus, the subjects experienced greater physical sensations of pain than those in the low empathy group. \u201cEmpaths feel things first, then they think [about them], which is the opposite of how most people function,\u201d Dr. Orloff says. \u201cEmpaths sense other people\u2019s emotions in our bodies without the usual filters; we can hear what they don\u2019t say.\u201d An estimated one in five people is considered highly sensitive, and many of these folks are empaths, too. Yet, being an empath is not a diagnosis found in the DSM-5, the consummate guide to psychiatric disorders, so \u201cit\u2019s often misdiagnosed as social anxiety,\u201d Dr. Orloff says. \u201cThere are empaths with social anxiety but social anxiety is more a result than a cause of symptoms. In empaths, the brain\u2019s mirror neuron system \u2014 a specialized group of cells that are responsible for compassion \u2014 are hyperactive.\u201d As a result of this neuronal hyperactivity, empaths absorb other people\u2019s feelings, energy and emotions into their own bodies. \u201cIt\u2019s a different wiring of the neurological system,\u201d Dr. Orloff says. Being an empath certainly has its benefits, including greater intuition, compassion, creativity and a deeper connection with other people. But living in this state of high sensitivity also comes with its challenges, such as becoming easily overwhelmed, over-stimulated, or exhausted, or absorbing stress and negativity from others. Given these risks, it\u2019s not surprising that empaths are particularly vulnerable to developing depression, anxiety, emotional burnout and addictions. Some empaths try to numb their sensitivities with alcohol, drugs, food, sex or shopping, Dr. Orloff notes.\u00a0\u201cIt\u2019s very common \u2014 being an empath is often a missing piece to addictions.\u201d If you\u2019re an empath, one of the keys to protecting your physical and emotional well-being is to avoid absorbing other people\u2019s stress and negative energy excessively. There are many different strategies that can help in this respect, Dr. Orloff says. \u201cYour best bet is to experiment and see which ones work best for you.\u201d Good ones to try: \tLearn to set boundaries. If someone is draining your energy or emotional reserve, limit the amount of time you spend with him or her or keep the length of the conversation to a minimum. Remember that \u201cNo\u201d is a complete sentence, Dr. Orloff says. So don\u2019t be afraid to say, \u201cI\u2019m sorry but I don\u2019t have the time or energy to talk right now,\u201d or, \u201cI\u2019m not up for going out tonight; I\u2019m too wiped out.\u201d By doing this, \u201cyou really protect your energy so you don\u2019t continue to give until you\u2019re worn out,\u201d Dr. Orloff says. \tQuestion your emotions. When you feel a sudden shift in mood or the onset of emotional overload, ask yourself whether the new feeling is genuinely yours or rightfully belongs to a companion. \u201cIf you didn\u2019t feel anxious, depressed, or exhausted before, most likely the discomfort you\u2019re feeling now is at least partially coming from someone else,\u201d Dr. Orloff says. Recognizing this can help dissipate the feelings you absorb from other people \u2014 or prevent them from having as deep or draining an impact as they might otherwise have. \tPlan alone time. \u201cEmpaths need to spend time alone to regroup and center themselves,\u201d Dr. Orloff says. The time can be spent sitting quietly, breathing slowly and deeply, meditating, or listening to soothing music. Keep in mind that immersing yourself in water \u2014 by taking an Epsom salt bath, sitting in a hot tub or going swimming can calm you physically and emotionally and help remove toxins from your body, Dr. Orloff says. With whatever solo activity you choose, the goal is to decrease external stimulation from other people and technology and reconnect with your inner sense of self. \tSpent time in nature. \u201cBeing in a fresh, clean, green environment, as well as near water, clears negativity,\u201d Dr. Orloff says. \u201cIt helps you shed other people\u2019s energy and replenish your own.\u201d To derive the maximum perks, use your senses to experience the sights, sounds, smells and physical sensations (of, say, the grass, sand, or soil) that are around you as fully as possible. \tCreate real or imagined distance. With people who regularly drain your energy, feel free to limit physical contact, Dr. Orloff suggests. \u201cEnergy is transferred through touch, so if you\u2019re wary of taking on another person\u2019s stress, you can choose to send them love from a physical distance.\u201d In other words, giving hugs, holding hands and engaging in other forms of touch is a choice, and it\u2019s your prerogative to step away from someone whose emotional energy is disturbing you. Similarly, you can use your visualization powers to separate yourself from other people\u2019s toxic emotions, Dr. Orloff notes. You might imagine an invisible shield going up around you that prevents other people\u2019s negative emotions from reaching you. Or, you could picture an elastic band extending from your torso to the other person\u2019s, and imagine cutting that band to prevent his or her anxiety or anger from becoming yours. In both instances, you\u2019ll remain physically present with the other person but you\u2019ll be taking care of your own emotional needs.