Stress Can Make Us More Empathetic

 Stress Can Make Us More Empathetic | sad | General Health Medical & Health Science & Technology Special Interests

By: Gemma Unwin |

Stress is a top concern for Americans of all ages, with up to 75 per cent of adults having reported moderate to high levels of stress in the previous month, and teens between the ninth and 12th grade also beleaguered by stress and tension. According to the American Psychological Association, it is vital that youths in particular learn how to handle stress, since chronic stress can have long-term health implications (including a higher risk of heart disease and Type II diabetes). Stress occurs at schools, in the workplace and sometimes, at home. High stress is a negative factor for those facing challenging tasks such as addiction recovery. Stress can act as a trigger for relapse into substance abuse, or lead to the adoption of other self-destructive behaviors. Despite all the negative effects of stress, one recent study has found that stress may have one positive effect: an ability to increase our empathy towards others.

The study, carried out by scientists at the University of Vienna, showed that when under stress, human beings also display an increase in prosocial behavior. The study involved the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to asses the stress response of study participants, who were exposed to stress while they tried to empathize with someone else.

A total of 80 participants were instructed to empathize with others while resolving difficult tasks within a set period of time. While they tried to complete their tasks, they were given negative feedback, to make the experience even more stressful. The scientists elicited the effects of this added stress by measuring levels of stress hormone, cortisol, in participants.

The scientists then asked the participants to look at photographs of painful medical procedures and to imagine the pain experienced by the patient. For some of the images, participants were told that the patient had received anesthesia, to differentiate between their automatic reaction to the harsh imagery, and the actual feelings of the patient. The aim was to study the participant’s ability to empathize with the pain (or lack of pain) felt by the person in each photograph.

The researchers then instructed participants to play ‘the dictator game’, in which they were told to distribute an amount of money between themselves and a stranger, in whatever proportion they deemed best.

The results of the fMRI scans showed that participants expressed greater neural empathy towards those undergoing the painful medical procedures, when the participants were stressed. However, their reaction was just as strong when they knew the patient was anesthetized. This showed that although they were more empathetic, they lacked perspective, since they ‘felt sorry’ for those who were not actually experiencing pain. The stress they were forced to face actually hampered their ability to process the complex information about the situation the patient was actually in. The scientists noted that sometimes, such a strong emotional response may result in a reaction that is uncalled for. Therefore, as lead researcher Claus Lamm noted, “depending on the context and situation, stress can be either beneficial or detrimental in social situations.”

Meanwhile, an associate professor at UC Berkeley, Daniela Kaufer, notes that stress doesn’t always have to be a bad thing: “The stress response is designed to help us react when something potentially threatening happens, to help us deal with it and learn from it. Our research shows that moderate, short-lived stress can improve alertness and performance and boost memory.”

Moderate stress, then, can increase alertness and performance, while extreme stress has the opposite effect. Stress improves memory by stimulating the growth of stem cells, which develop into brain cells. The process stems from the need to evolve; if an animal encounters a stressful situation, they need to remember all the details – the where, how and why of the event – in order to avoid it in the future. Moderate stress is also helpful when we have an important task to complete, such as an exam or work project.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, has negative effects of the body. For instance, it can cause blood vessels to constrict, thereby leading to heart disease. Laboratory tests, meanwhile, have shown that chronic stress can lead to a drop in fertility. Extreme stress can also lead to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a very difficult condition to overcome. Those with PTSD are unable to forget the stressful event they faced, and become overcome by trauma.

It is important to note that each of us responds to stress in a different way – therefore, an event which may be extremely stressful to one person may actually be bearable or even enjoyable to another. Those facing chronic or extreme stress should seek professional help to overcome the long-term effects of stress in their lives.


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