But the researchers also discovered that those who were asked to react to the essay with compassion — who thought about how the other person might be feeling but didn’t share the emotion — had a positive, invigorating arousal response, as if they were confronting a challenge that was achievable or offering advice that might help improve the student’s situation.
“People assume that any kind of empathy is associated with positive health benefits and behaviors, but for the first time we have physical evidence that not all empathy is alike, that its positive or negative effects depend on the perspective you take,” Buffone says.
“Neuroscientific research on empathy shows that if you’re empathizing with a person who is in pain, anxious or depressed, your brain will show activation of very similar circuits as the brain of the person with whom you’re empathizing,” notes Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Compassion, on the other hand, activates a different part of the brain, areas associated with motivation and reward. So, where emotional empathy can cause pain and burnout, compassion drives you to want to help.
While it’s possible to feel all three types of empathy at once, emotional empathy is often the gateway to feeling compassion, Davidson says. This doesn’t mean there can’t be a mix of emotions, he says, but feeling another person’s pain and suffering is often a prerequisite to feeling compassion.
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.
One way to keep empathy in check is through compassionate meditation, Davidson says.
“Start by envisioning someone you know who may be in pain or may have gone through a stressful event,” he says, “and then envision them being relieved of that suffering.” He says it may be helpful to repeat a phrase silently in your mind, such as: May you be happy and be free of suffering.
“Encouraging the focus on the person’s well-being and happiness, instead of their distress, actually shifts our brain’s pathways from experiencing painful empathy to the more rewarding areas of compassion,” Davidson says. “It’s this process that helps us to detach from their suffering.”
“Research shows that these simple exercises actually affect your actions in the real world, making you more likely to be pro-social and helpful,” he says.
Transforming initial emotional empathy into compassion doesn’t mean you care less about the person, Davidson says. After all, “mirroring the emotional state of another person who is suffering is not all that helpful — what kind of assistance can you provide if you’re now suffering, too?”
He adds: “For the most part, people don’t actually want you to feel their pain. What they want is your help and compassion.”