But this seemly positive emotion can also have a downside, particularly if someone gets so consumed by another’s feelings that they neglect their own feelings and needs. Stern says those who regularly prioritize others’ emotions over their own are more susceptible to experiencing anxiety or low-level depression.
“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. “Being supportive of those we care about is among our most cherished and important roles,” Zaki says, “but it’s also one that’s fraught: We want to be there for someone but not lose ourselves.”
In a study published last year in the journal Health Psychology, researchers looked at the effects of parental empathy on 247 pairs of parents and adolescents. Through blood tests, questionnaire responses and daily diary entries, researchers found that parental empathy was highly correlated with better psychological and physiological well-being in adolescents. The parents in the study benefited, too, with highly empathic parents reporting greater self-esteem and a deeper sense of purpose in their lives than those who reported lower levels of empathy.
But it wasn’t all good news. The more empathic the parent, the researchers found, the more likely that person was to be experiencing chronic low-grade inflammation. The researchers speculate, “Parents who readily engage with the struggles and perspectives of others may leave themselves vulnerable to additional burdens, expending physiological resources in order to better help others.”
Is there a healthier way to empathize?
Psychologists describe empathy in three ways: You can think it, feel it or be moved by it,Zaki says.
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.
Which perspective we take when responding to someone else’s suffering can affect our own health and well-being. In an upcoming study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers assigned more than 200 college students to act as a helper to what they were told was a fellow student going through personal crisis. Each participant was asked to read a personal essay detailing the supposed student’s financial struggles and stress upon becoming the primary caregiver for a younger sibling after the death of their mother.
While reading the text, a third of the volunteers were asked to think about how that person must be feeling (compassionate empathy) and a third were asked to imagine how they would feel if they were that person (emotional empathy). A control group was asked to stay detached and remain objective.
Researchers then measured the participants for various physiological markers, including hormone stress levels, heart rates and blood pressure. They found that those who put themselves in the other person’s shoes had significantly higher “fight-or-flight” responses, as though they, too, were going through a stressful experience.
“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.”