On Empathy & Stress


Last week, I reached a stress peak.

I've always experienced a slightly higher-than-average level of anxiety, and after several weeks of disturbed sleep and steadily increasing work stress, I sort of lost it. Instead of spending the (finally) warm Brooklyn weekend outside, I spent most of it in bed, binge-watching Netflix and trying to recover from burnout. I even canceled my Easter plans to visit family. This week, I feel a lot better, and I'm beginning to analyze what went wrong in order to avoid repeating the same cycle in the future. So when this study about the connection between stress and empathy popped into my inbox, I was intrigued. 

Stress is often described as part of our biological "fight or flight" response. When we get too stressed too often, our bodies can start to mistake relatively benign situations for potentially dangerous ones, and we can get stuck in "fight or flight" mode at inappropriate times and for long periods. There are a lot of other things at play as well - I don't want to simplify stress! But for the purposes of understanding this research, let's think about it that way. And then let's shake up that thinking, because, according to Science Daily,

"Newer findings revealed that humans show an increase in prosocial behavior under stress."

That's prosocial, as opposed to antisocial, the latter of which is generally how one would describe fighting or fleeing. Claus Lamm and his team from the University of Vienna asked study participants to solve difficult tasks under a time limit while providing regular negative feedback (hello, stress) and measured their cortisol levels and brain activity. Then, they showed the participants photos of painful medical procedures and asked them to "vividly imagine" the pain of the patients in the photos. In some cases, they told the participants that the patients had received anesthesia. The researchers then also played the experimental economics "dictator game," in which participants have to distribute a certain amount of money in whatever ratio they see fit (it's used to test self-interest). 

According to the fMRI results, the participants' neural empathy networks reacted more strongly to the painful-looking images when they were under stress. The surprising thing was that this was true regardless of whether or not they believed the patient in the photos had received anesthesia. The same neural activation also reportedly correlated with the amount of money shared during the "dictator game." The stronger the apparent empathy reaction in the game, the more money the participant shared. 

"Our results thus support the hypothesis that humans show more empathy and are more prone to helping others when they are under stress, but that their perspective taking skills might deteriorate," said Claus Lamm.

Which is perhaps why, even though I felt myself getting more and more stressed out over the past few weeks, I kept saying yes to bids for my attention, work, and physical presence. It wasn't until I had to leave a meeting to catch my breath and then cancel everything for a long weekend that I snapped out of this empathy-stress-empathy cycle.

Now that I'm on the other side of my stress crisis, I can see how I misread several situations during that time, and how internalizing those misread emotions so deeply could have caused further unnecessary damage to my already frayed nerves. Think about it - do you feel especially affected by others' emotions and experiences when you are stressed yourself? When you're at your wit's end, do you feel like you empathize more with each person who asks you for something, or the main character in the show you're binge-watching? Or are you more likely to shut down?

Of course, this is just one piece of research. But if Lamm had put me in an fMRI machine this time last week and asked me to look at photos of patients undergoing painful medical procedures, anesthesia or not, I certainly would have felt something!

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