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Stress Increases Empathy

May 5, 2017

Stress can bring out the worst in us. In fact, stress can contribute to negative habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and overeating. But, surprisingly, moderate or low levels of stress can also have positive benefits. Small amounts of stress can motivate you to succeed, it can strengthen your resolve, and, according to one study, it can also increase empathy.

Researchers from the University of Vienna conducted a small study with 80 male participants. For the empathy study, the participants were shown photos of painful medical procedures and the researchers studied MRI scans of their brains. The MRI results showed that the participants’ “neural empathy network reacted more strongly to images of painful medical procedures” when the participants were under stress. The study results also showed that stressed participants were also more generous with others.

Turning your moments of stress into an opportunity to foster empathy is a great mindful practice. Listed below are a few tips to help you turn your latest bout of stress into a period of emotional growth.

  • Read more. One of the best ways to foster empathy is to see things from other people’s point-of-view. Getting to know people of different cultures and religious beliefs is one way to accomplish this. Reading books (especially non-fictional works) about people who are different from you can is another way. So, go to your local library and start researching.
  • Take note from our four-legged friends. Our pet dogs can be great sources of comfort when we are distraught or stressed, which is behavior that we can definitely learn from. Studies have shown that our dogs are responding to our emotions which sort of rubs off of us and onto them. So, to foster empathy it’s important that we take note from our furry friends. Sometimes just physically being there for a person and not even saying anything can be enough.
  • Take a moment of reflection. Our media’s 24-hour news cycle is full of heartbreaking stories—from war and famine to killings and incurable illnesses. It’s in our nature to turn away from these sad stories and seek out happier ones. But, to foster empathy, the next time you see a sad story on your newsfeed, don’t swipe it away. Instead, read the news and allow yourself to feel the pain and sadness. Take a quiet moment and send your thoughts, words of prayer, or a donation (if possible) to these struggling people.

Bonus. Want more tips on boosting empathy. It’s important that you are first kind to yourself—kindness starts from within. It’s also important to stay curious and to listen to others. You can find more Mindful tips here.

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