Empaths & Animals: A Special Relationship
Empaths not only feel the emotions of others in their own bodies, but both psychologists and empaths themselves have said that empaths often benefit from a unique connection to the natural world, and particularly with nonhuman creatures. Empaths and animals, it seems, have a special relationship.
Of course, many of us feel we have a deep bond with our pets or with a specific type of creature such as the birds or even squirrels in our yards. Or we may feel compassion towards the animals in a zoo. In fact, evolutionary biologists have studied the general sense of empathy humans have towards animals and our tendency to anthropomorphize them. The majority of us can muster both empathy (the feeling that we can understand the emotions of something outside ourselves) as well as compassion (being moved to help another) for mammals and the other creatures we are more closely related to. We can even have these feelings for trees and bugs, but often to a lesser extent.
But what about empaths? Do they have a special way of connecting with the natural world?
Are Animals Easier for Empaths?
While the definition of a true empath has not been scientifically established, at the very least it seems clear that the characteristics we’ve come to associate with empaths ring true to many people: Empathic individuals are highly sensitive and intuitive, they feel so deeply about other people and living things that they often have to protect themselves from emotional overload, they avoid situations (even fictional ones) involving violence or even sad news because it affects them deeply, and they take solace in and are replenished by nature.
Because there’s so little scientific categorization, you’ll find a wide variety of theories about empaths and animals, and it’s unlikely that all empaths forge deep, emotional connections to nonhuman entities. But for those who do, the reasons are obvious:
- Animals are authentic. They’re not dishonest or deceptive (unless they’re being mischievous for a specific purpose), and empaths have little to fear when it comes to sharing their emotional baggage with animals.
- Animals often give affection freely once they trust someone. There’s very little emotional work to be done when bonding with them, and for empaths who fear betrayal, rejection, or being taken advantage of because of their openness, a loyal animal may seem like the most reliable companion.
- Animals live in the moment. They can teach us that getting up and forgetting the past in a matter of seconds can be freeing. Some empaths ruminate to the point of excessive anxiety, so animals can be good teachers when it comes to letting things go.
- Animals allow themselves to be vulnerable. They don’t have the ingrained sense of shame that humans do when it comes to expressing themselves, so they present less of a challenge to empaths when it comes to figuring out what they’re feeling.
- Animals have a measurable positive effect on us. Touch has a calming effect on all humans (in the absence of trauma, of course), and simply stroking an animal has been shown to reduce biological stress responses in humans, such as blood pressure and heart rate.
- Many animals are open to love without many conditions. It’s usually not hard to love an animal and it’s easy to tell if they are open to affection or not. This takes the stress of guesswork out of opening up to someone or something else.
- Some animals seem to be drawn to the feelings of empaths. Think of your pet and how they tend to pick up on your sadness or pain and simply lie down next to you. That’s often the kind of silent support empaths need when they’re overwhelmed.
Of course, you don’t have to be an empath to find comfort in animals for these same reasons. But because empaths are more vulnerable when it comes to trust, connection, attunement, and the potential for burnout in emotionally complex situations, animal interactions are especially soothing.
Empaths and the Natural World
Just as animals can be soothing for all types of people, nature can help improve the wellbeing of anyone. But for empaths, it’s not just an escape from the social interactions, drama, and noise that makes nature appealing, it may also have a spiritual component in helping them cope.
While we often try our hardest to separate science from spirituality, they both have the same goals, if not the same methods. Nature seems imbued with spiritual significance and can force us to realize that we’re part of something greater that is beyond either sensory experience or measurement. Whether you call it cosmic or divine is purely your prerogative, but humans have always believed in a connection between nature and the spirit world and that opening oneself up to it can help alleviate suffering.
Even without a spiritual component, nature allows us to stop and heal. It demands little of us in terms of interaction, and it doesn’t provide the strain on our emotions or senses that social environments do. When you consider how much emotion an empath might absorb in a big city setting, in a crowded office, while working in a helping profession, or simply surrounded by family and friends that need them at all times, healing goes beyond the need for peace and quiet. Interacting with animals or communing with nature is an active way of replenishing one’s emotional storage.
Empaths and Animals: An Emotional Bond
While empaths have a gift, that gift can lead to responses from emotional overwhelm to anxiety and depression. Internalizing the emotions of others makes people wonderful parents, doctors, caretakers, friends, and partners, but occasionally it can lead to more stress, hyperarousal, and negative thinking.
The natural world can provide a refuge for those seeking a break from the noise of social interaction. But since isolation can become an unhealthy coping mechanism, many empaths have relied on their relationship with animals, often in the form of pets, as a respite from emotional overload.
Perhaps animals have empathic characteristics too (it’s easy to posit but hard to measure) and that’s part of the reason they’re drawn to people grappling with strong emotions.
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- by Jessica Baron