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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?
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.
[Read: “What to Expect When You’re in Love With an Empath.”]
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:
[Read: “5 Spiritual Lessons We Learn From Cats.”]
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.
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.
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.
Getting all the feels? Consider what it means to be a true empath.
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