Empathy is a universal human ability.
When it is genuinely missing or inadequate, such as in cases of autism or psychopathy, we describe it as a serious mental illness. Like most other human qualities however, empathy may be innately stronger in some individuals. It can also be consciously or unconsciously fostered or defended against. As a result some individuals will be highly and almost excessively empathic with others. They often describe themselves as “emotional sponges”, helplessly absorbing the feelings, both good and bad of those around them.
Empathy is the earliest form of communication.
Human beings communicate through empathic connection from birth. Mothers and infants accurately read each other’s emotional communications. This skill is never lost and we all use empathic understanding of other people’s feelings to round out and nuance what they say to us. We all know that the same words offered in a tender or a sarcastic tone can have vastly different implications and emotional effects.
We rarely, however, think about this subliminal communication and we are usually not aware of how we do it.
Anxiety and anger are the most “catching”
While all emotions can be empathically transmitted between people, the most problematic feelings are those of anxiety and anger.
There are good evolutionary reasons for this.
All higher animals are sensitive to signals of environmental danger from others around them. An alarm signal prepares the individual for self-protective action, be it fight or flight. Preparedness for action includes vascular, muscular respiratory and endocrinal responses which we then experience as the physical feelings of anxiety and tension.
Interpersonal signal reading – Visual and vocal changes communicate anxiety.
As early as 1949, psychological researchers such as Jurgen Reusch observed that in human beings, transmission of danger signals can be visible: sweating, strained postures, shallow breathing, blushing, general restlessness.
There are also audible cues: voices may become loud or shrill, the pitch of the voice may rise or alternate arrythmically between high and low, there may be spurts or rushes of talk, lack of pauses, interruption of others, variations in speed of talk, or inappropriate laughter. The reverse picture is also indicative of anxiety: faltering speech, long pauses, and the introduction non-words such as “ah” or “uh”.
Read the full article via Emotional Contagion: Being an “Emotional Sponge”.