If you are anything like me, you’re a giver.
And, you feel other people’s pain, sadness, and happiness.
You make sure other peoples’ needs are met before yours, and you feel guilty for taking any time off for yourself.
But, I bet you didn’t realize that empathy can be hazardous to your health.
In this article, I’ll explain
- What the different types of empathy are from sociological and neurological perspectives.
- How empathy can be hazardous to your health
- Who’s more at risk for detrimental health outcomes
- How empathy can be a tool for healing, and
- What the limitations are
EMPATHY – THE SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE:
Empathy is our ability to understand feelings of someone else which gives us the capability of figuring out how to respond to an individual.
There are two types of empathy: Cognitive and Affective.
Cognitive empathy (CE) is understanding what someone is feeling. It helps us formulate appropriate social response to another individual based on a perceived understanding of what he or she might be going through.
Affective empathy (AE) is our ability to feel what someone else is feeling. It “puts ourselves in someone else’s shoes” by mirroring someone else’s emotional state.
Empathy helps cultivate societies. It allows us to imitate others, from both observational and emotional levels and explains why societies can evolve.
For example, women imitated other empowered women in the early 1900s to create a revolution where they earned the right to vote. But, it all started by imitating those few who were brave enough to advocate.
Emotional Contagion: The theory which states emotions can be “contagious.”
Ever notice how the media gets society to react through fear? This can cause all kinds of unnecessary ruckus like gas hoarding, racism, and helicoptering (your kids).
But, emotional contagion can be good thing if it’s based on love.
Researchers tested the different types of empathy and found that when exposed to images depicting threatening situations, areas in the brain lit up that were associated with affective empathy.
Further studies utilized this theory to measure an emotional state of a society by using the susceptible-infected-susceptible disease (SISa) model.
The findings suggested that the rate of someone who is pessimistic had a higher chance of staying pessimistic than individuals who wanted to be happy.
Does this explain why the United States lives in a fear-based society?
EMPATHY – THE NEUROLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
The key brain structures involved in our ability to empathize are found in the frontal, parietal and temporal lobes, specifically derived from the mirror neuron system (MNS).
The MNS connects to the limbic system (hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and anterior cingulate cortex) and other associated structures, but not limited to, the prefrontal cortex, insula, and pituitary gland.
The MNS possesses its own neural circuit to code and store how we react to a stimulus.
An fMRI study revealed significant activity in the areas of the brain that encompassed the MNS when exposed to facial expressions, depicting happiness, sadness, angriness, surprise, disgust, and afraid. Subjects were asked to both observe and imitate what they saw. This helped figure how and where the MNS responded.
There was activation of the same hormones and neurotransmitters that were secreted through the fight or flight response.
(There were similar findings when subjects were exposed to the word, “no.”)
When hearing, the word, “yes,” the findings did not detect a stress response in the brain.
During perceived threats, physical pain or negative emotions, the MNS sends signals to the amygdala which messages the hypothalamus to secrete fight or flight hormones (cortisol, norepinephrine, adrenaline, and others).
This increases your heart and respiratory rates and puts the body into an inflammatory state.
Researchers found that more neurons are fired with aversive stimuli than with positive stimuli.
Your brain cannot distinguish between irrational and rational threats.
In the neuroscience world, the Hebbian learning theory states “cells that fire together, wire together,” indicating that the more you expose ourselves to certain stimuli, the more sensitive you are to react.
This theory evolved into what is now known as long term potentiation (LTP). LTP is where our brain will pave pathways comprised of axons and dendrites through associative learning.
This results in the propensity for the brain to react quicker to triggers and stimuli.
If you’ve ever experienced post-traumatic disorder, cringe when you’re around negative people, or become sad when you see someone hurt, you’ll know what I’m talking about. This triggers the fight or flight response.
This puts individuals at risk who exhibit empathetic behavior.
HOW EMPATHY CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH:
When the brain responds to stress (perceived or real), cortisol is released through the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA). This, and other hormones, tells our body how to appropriately respond to a rational threat.
Once the stressor has gone, the body regulates itself back to baseline.
If an individual is repeatedly exposed to perceived or real stressors, the body thinks it is supposed to be in constant survival mode.
Cortisol receptors in the hippocampus are damaged, which will not get the signal that the stress response is over. If there is frequent exposure to perceived stress, the body thinks it needs cortisol.
The damaged cortisol receptors and the constant flow of cortisol in our body result in what we know as anxiety disorder.
Having chronic elevated cortisol levels can lead to health issues, like muscle wasting and fatigue, metabolism irregularity, inhibition of growth hormones, dysfunction in the reproductive system, and ultimately an entire catalog of chronic diseases.
This is because the immune system becomes suppressed.
WHO’S MORE AT RISK?
Women. Research suggests that mirror neuron systems found in women are more reactive than men’s.
One study revealed that women were very responsive to moderately negative facial expressions, whereas men showed little to no response.
Another study showed there was more blood flow in limbic and paralimbic structures in women than men when self-inducing sadness by remembering an adverse emotional event.
Women’s sociological roles and pressures could put them at higher risk to mood disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Additionally, interpersonal guilt may contribute to ruminating or internalizing maladaptive symptoms.
This comes from the notion that women feel more responsible for alleviating others’ perceived pain because of their role as caregivers.
This creates burnout – resulting in anxiety, grief, and loss of self due to the effects of dysregulation in the neural system caused by an overactive mirror neuron system.
CAN EMPATHY BE A TOOL FOR HEALING?
YES: Through neuroplasticity.
By using the mirror neuron system through imitation and observation, we can create neuroplastic changes that form new connections elsewhere in the brain, aka rewiring the brain.
This technique is currently being used in patients with neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, as well as in patients with mental disorders.
This has been proven to improve overall health through learning healthier ways to function and cope.
The old neural connections that aren’t used anymore atrophy, or disintegrate or waste away.
But, wait… There’s more:
You can turn empathy inwards through self-compassion.
By allowing your mirror neuron system to be exposed to more positive stimuli, this can prevent and/or reverse the damage that has been done by being too empathetic.
Each time we’re exposed to negative stressors, it creates a “downward spiral,” meaning that it becomes harder to get ourselves out. It is difficult because the LTP (long-term potentiation) is so strong, resulting in more frequent relapses.
This is how post-traumatic syndrome (PTSD) works.
To push ourselves into a healthier mental state, we must do three positive activities for every one negative before “optimal functioning first emerges.”
(The 3-to-1 theory)
Many studies showed “sustained changes in brain function” when participants practiced the 3-to-1 theory.
They did this through mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, playing an instrument, and practicing gratitude over short-term and long-term timeframes.
Brain imaging revealed evidence for newly created neural connections and activity which resulted in better cardiovascular health, increased self-awareness, and overall positive moods.
Participants became more resilient when dealing with stressful events.
ARE THERE LIMITATIONS?:
YES. There are limitations in those who may be suffering from neurological deficiencies, as seen in people with schizophrenia and autism.
Some individuals with autism have been shown to have thinner mirror neuron systems. And, people who suffer from schizophrenia may not have the ability to exhibit anticipatory pleasure.
Scientists suggest that an individual must be neurologically competent to “want” cognitive growth – and that we need to keep in mind how these type of limitations can affect individuals who possess other neurological deficits, like in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder or Alzheimer’s.
You now know that being too empathetic can detrimentally impact your health. But, you can use empathy in the form of self-compassion to heal and also to improve the tone of society.
Imagine living in a society that doesn’t respond to irrational fear!
- Aglioti, S., & Betti, V. (2016). Dynamic Construction of the Neural Networks Underpinning Empathy for Pain. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 63, 191-206. Retrieved February 10, 2016.
- All About Empathy: Mirror-Neurons and Empathy. (n.d.). Retrieved February 20, 2016, from http://cultureofempathy.com/references/mirror-neurons.htm
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2014, September 1). Retrieved February 19, 2016, from http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
- Blakeslee, Sandra. (n.d. ). Mirror Neurons: Cells That Read Minds. Mind Power News. Retrieved from http://www.mindpowernews.com/MirrorNeurons.htm
- Carr, L., Iacoboni, M., Dubeau, M., Mazziotta, J., & Lenzi, G. (2003). Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(9), 5497-5502.
- Corradini, A., & Antonietti, A. (2013). Mirror neurons and their function in cognitively understood empathy. Consciousness and Cognition, 22(3), 1152-1161.
- Demarin, V. (2013). Neuroplasticity in Neurodegenerative Diseases and Stroke. Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 333.
- Denholm, D., PH. (2012, August 1). When Caregivers Care Too Much. Retrieved February 24, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-caregivers-handbook/201208/when-caregivers-care-too-much
- Fredrickson, B. L. “The Broaden-And-Build Theory of Positive Emotions”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences1449 (2004): 1367-1377.
- Fricchione, G. (2011). Compassion and Healing in Medicine and Society: On the nature and use of attachment solutions to separation challenges. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp: 195-196
- Garland, E. L., Fredrickson, B., Kring, A. M., Johnson, D. P., Meyer, P. S., & Penn, D. L. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 849-864.
- George, M. S., Ketter, T. A., Parekh, P. I., Herscovitch, P., & Post, R. M. (1996). Gender Differences in Regional Cerebral Blood Flow during transient Self-induced Sadness or Happiness. Biological Psychiatry, 40(9), 859-871.
- Goldin, P., Ph.D. (2013, May 28). Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation. Retrieved February 27, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRAkRppTl7c
- Hill, A. L., Rand, D. G., Nowak, M. A., & Christakis, N. A. (2010). Emotions as infectious diseases in a large social network: The SISa model. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1701), 3827-383 Retrieved from http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/royprsb/277/1701/3827.full.pdf
- Hoff, R., & Yuan, T. (2008). Mirror Neuron System Based Therapy for Emotional Disorders. Medical Hypotheses, 71(5), 722-726.
- Jarrett, C., Ph.D. (2012, December 10). Mirror Neurons: The Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience? Retrieved February 27, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-myths/201212/mirror-neurons-the-most- hyped-concept-in-neuroscience
- Kolb, B., & Whishaw, I. Q. (2011). An introduction to brain and behavior (3rd ed.). New York City, NY: Worth Publishing. pp: 275-276
- Li, H., Yuan, J., & Lin, C. (2008). The neural mechanism underlying the female advantage in identifying negative emotions: An event-related potential study. NeuroImage, 40(4), 1921-1929.
- Newberg, A., MD, & Waldman, M. (2012, August 1). The Most Dangerous Word in the World. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/words-can-change-your-brain/201208/the-most-dangerous-word-in-the-world
- Nummenmaa, L., Hirvonen, J, Parkkola, R., Hietanen, J.K., Is emotional contagion special? An fMRI study on neural systems for affective and cognitive empathy, Neuroimage 43 (2008) 571–580
- Ramachandran, V. (2009, November 1). The Neurons that Shaped Civilization. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/vs_ramachandran_the_neurons_that_shaped_civilization?language=en
- Toohill, K. (2015, July 31). Here’s How Negative Thinking is Changing Your Brain. Retrieved from http://www.attn.com/stories/2587/what-negative-thinking-does-your-brain.
- Tone, E. B., & Tully, E. C. (2014). Empathy as a “risky strength”: A multilevel examination of empathy and risk for internalizing disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 26(4.2), 1547-1565.
- Winerman, L. (2005, October 1). The Mind’s Mirror. Retrieved February 27, 2016, from http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct05/mirror.aspx, Vol 36, No. 9, pg. 48