Link Between Anxiety Disorder, Early Life Trauma, and Empathy
Many anxiety disorder sufferers experience problematic anxiety because they have experienced early life trauma (approximately 60 percent of anxiety disorder sufferers have experienced early life trauma) and because they are more empathetic (many anxiety disorder sufferers truly feel the emotions and hurts of others). New research has identified an important connection.
Research authored by David Greenberg of University of Cambridge and City University of New York found that experiencing early life trauma is associated with higher empathy levels in adults. The study, “Elevated empathy in adults following childhood trauma,” which was published in PLOS ONE, shows that children who experience early life trauma often grow up to respond better to the emotional states of others.
The researchers ran two surveys via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, one group of 387 adults and a second group of 442 adults, which asked about their histories of childhood trauma and their level of empathy. To replicate the results from the first survey, the second survey was similar to the first except that it used a different empathy measure.
The researchers found that adults who experienced childhood trauma had higher levels of empathy than those adults that didn’t experience early life trauma. Examples of traumatic events included the death of a loved one (family member or close friend), parental divorce or disharmony, experiencing violence, and traumatic sexual experiences such as sexual abuse.
It was also noted that childhood trauma was only associated with elevated Affective Empathy but not to elevated Cognitive Empathy.
“Cognitive empathy (also referred to as ‘mentalizing’) is the ability to understand another’s thoughts and feelings, whereas affective empathy is the ability respond to another person’s mental state with an appropriate emotion,” the study explained.
The study’s abstract concludes:
“Results across samples and measures showed that, on average, adults who reported experiencing a traumatic event in childhood had elevated empathy levels compared to adults who did not experience a traumatic event. Further, the severity of the trauma correlated positively with various components of empathy. These findings suggest that the experience of a childhood trauma increases a person’s ability to take the perspective of another and to understand their mental and emotional states, and that this impact is long-standing.”
From an anxiety disorder perspective, it’s interesting to note that many people who struggle with anxiety disorder do so because they have both experienced early life trauma and are, therefore, more empathetic. Elevated empathy can make us more sensitive to others emotions and hurts, which we often internalize ourselves. A common sentiment we hear is, “I often feel like an emotional sponge where I really feel the emotions and hurts of others.” This increased sensitivity to emotion is often one of the many underlying factors that influence anxious behavior, which can lead to issues with anxiety.
Moreover, being an “emotional sponge” can also set us up to be more concerned about how we treat others. This concern is experienced as anxiety, nervousness, and worry. The more concerned we are, the higher the resulting anxiety.
While it’s admirable to be empathetic, anxious people need healthy boundaries to insulate themselves from the unhealthy behavior that can create problems with anxiety. Healthy boundaries help us to retain our level of empathy for others while at the same time protecting ourselves from overly apprehensive behavior, such as the over responsibility for others. In a sense, healthy boundaries give us the best of both worlds – empathy for others but in healthy ways rather than unhealthy anxious ways.
If you’ve experienced early life trauma and feel like an “emotional sponge,” working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist can help you adopt healthy boundaries so that you can maintain your compassion for others while at the same time not letting it drive you into issues with anxiety and symptoms.
Greenberg DM, Baron-Cohen S, Rosenberg N, Fonagy P, Rentfrow PJ (2018) Elevated empathy in adults following childhood trauma. PLoS ONE 13(10): e0203886. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203886
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Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated November 21, 2018.