What is Empathic Distress?


Are you a natural helper who is driven by the motivation to alleviate suffering in others?

You may have built an entire career around it as a healthcare professional, educator, social worker, therapist, or caregiver. But all too often, our day-to-day experience can be one of overwhelm and burnout as we struggle to care for those around us. And the problem is not that we care too much or too little; it’s that we have been approaching our work as helpers all wrong.

As helpers, we often feel the need to sacrifice our own well-being for the well-being of those we love and support.

Empathic distress occurs when we are in resonance with another person’s suffering to the point of over-identification and not being able to modulate our own subjective experience.

When we identify too strongly with someone who is suffering, our emotions can push us over the edge into a level of distress that mirrors the anguish of those we are trying to serve.

If our experience of his/her suffering overwhelms us, empathic distress can cause us to go numb, to abandon others to protect ourselves from suffering that is too heavy to bear, and to experience symptoms of stress and burnout-overwhelmed, drained, exhausted, and debilitated.

Four Signs of Empathic Distress and their impact on you and others. 

  1. When experiencing empathic distress, we may attempt to relieve others’ suffering through heroic caregiving distress that can easily lead to burnout. Our actions may harm us and those whom we serve by enabling their dysfunctions or depriving others of agency.
  2. We might abandon the suffering person because being in their presence is too painful for us.
  3. Moral outrage can occur in situations involving injustice or systemic violence;  we can easily feel moral distress and outrage by over-empathizing with others, which can spiral into avoidance, numbing, and burnout.
  4. Emotional Blindness is another way we can sometimes respond when experiencing personal distress. This is the inability to read our own and others’ emotions.

It is crucial that, as helpers, we learn how to regulate our empathic arousal response to activate healthy concern so that sympathy and compassion can arise, which allows us to help others. Those who feel compassion in each situation are more likely to take action to serve than those who are suffering from empathic distress.

As an empathic helper, you can understand how natural it is to allow yourself to include the experience of others in your own experience. But we must also recognize that we are not the other because this gives us the space to stay grounded and experience at least a little humility.

Finding that balance between identification and distinction is essential-without making this distinction between self and other; empathic distress is inevitable.

The experience of empathic distress often arouses a storm of reactivity and fear within us-one powerful enough to shatter us and our world.

However, when we understand the complexity of our responses in our encounters with those suffering, we can learn the skills to modulate our empathy to avoid or transform distress.

About Teena

Teena Evert is an integral psychotherapist and a holistic/energy practitioner who supports the healing of empaths and sensitives who are healthcare workers or caregivers so they can overcome empathic distress, avoid burnout, and maintain a high level of health and well-being while caring for others who are in pain and suffering. As a highly sensitive, empathic helper, her own health suffered from caring for others’ pain and sorrow. Her ability to overcome empathic distress and burnout makes her determination to heal powerful and inspiring. She has been able to do more good in the world than she ever dreamed through her commitment to learning and applying how to heal yourself.