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Study: Too Much Empathy Can Lead To Sickness

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Empathy is a vital component of intimate relationships, but research shows darker side effects ranging from depression to cardiovascular problems that indicate a need to manage empathy well. Image credit: Tamara/Flickr

Empathy is a vital component of intimate relationships, but research shows darker side effects ranging from depression to cardiovascular problems that indicate a need to manage empathy well.

Although tuning into the feelings and experiences of those we care for is important, becoming consumed by others to the point of self neglect can be more than just psychologically tiring or harmful. As discussed in the Washington Post,

“Over time,” lead researcher Anneke Buffone notes, “the chronic activation of the stress hormone cortisol could lead to a variety of serious health issues like cardiovascular problems, a finding that is particularly meaningful for health professionals who are confronted with others’ pain and suffering daily.”

According to psychologists, there are three ways to experience empathy:

  • "With cognitive empathy, you understand what someone else is thinking and feeling, as when you relate to a character in a novel or take someone’s perspective during a business negotiation."
  • "With emotional empathy, you actually put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel their emotion. This is the type of response that, left unchecked, can lead to caretaker burnout, says Zaki."

"And then there’s compassionate empathy, where you feel concern about another’s suffering, but from more of a distance and with a desire to help the person in need."

“When we think of empathy fatigue, we usually think about those in helping professions, like nurses, doctors, social workers — but all of us are often in the role of helpers or caretakers, whether it’s caring for a sick parent, a child or a friend during a difficult time,” says Jamil Zaki, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.

What can you do?

Psychologists say that we can learn to regulate our empathy, as we do other emotions, and even transform excessive emotional empathy into less stressful compassion. “You want to ‘feel’ with another person, but you don’t need to stay there,” Stern says.

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