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Why too much empathy can be bad for your mental health

Have you found yourself irritable, sad, or on the verge of tears when watching the news lately? If so, you are not alone.

Experiencing empathy has its benefits, but also many drawbacks, so we must learn to practice healthy empathy.

Empathy is the ability to synchronize emotionally and cognitively with another person; it is an ability to perceive the world from her perspective or to share her emotional experiences.

Is essential for building and maintaining relationships, as it helps us connect with others on a deeper level. It is also associated with higher self-esteem and life purpose.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and the emotional empathy.

Emotional empathy has to do with sharing feelings with others, to the point where one can come to experience pain when seeing another person sufferingor experience anguish when seeing someone in distress.

This is what happens to many people when they watch disturbing news on television, especially when it relates to specific people and their lives.

But emotional empathy is not just reduced to experiencing negative emotions. Empathetic people may experience a lots of positivity.

The effect on the body

Although this emotional contagion is conducive to positive states, having too much empathy when we see other people suffer can be very distressingand even lead to mental health problems.

Too much empathy towards others, especially when we prioritize other people’s emotions over our own, can lead to experiences of anxiety and depressionwhich explains why many of us feel bad when we see the news about the war in Ukraine.

The other kind of empathy cognitive empathyrefers to seeing the world through other people’s eyes, seeing it from their perspective, putting ourselves in their shoes without necessarily experiencing the associated emotions and, for example, watching the news and understanding at a cognitive level. why people feel despair, anguish or anger.

This process can lead to emotional empathy or even to the somatic empathy, that has a physiological effect (somatic, from the ancient Greek word “soma”, meaning body).

Compassion is the antidote to the anguish we feel when we identify with another's pain.

The effect of empathy on the body has been well documented. For example, parents who experience high levels of empathy toward their children tend to have low-grade chronic inflammation, leading to a lower immunity.

Also, our heart beats to the same rhythm when we identify with others. So the impact of empathy on watching the news is both psychological and physiological.. In some circumstances, it can result in what some refer to as “compassion fatigue“.

a misnomer

The exhaustion experienced by excessive empathy has traditionally been called compassion fatigue.

But more recently, using MRI studies, neuroscientists have argued that this is a misnomer and that compassion does not cause fatigue.

The distinction is important because it turns out that compassion is the antidote to anxiety that we feel when we identify with people who suffer. We need less empathy and more compassion.

Negative vs positive emotions

empathy and compassion are different events in the brain.

Empathy for another person’s pain activates areas of the brain associated with negative emotions. Because we feel the other person’s pain, the boundary between oneself and others can become blurred if we don’t have good boundaries or self-regulation skills and experience “emotional contagion.”

We get caught up in anguish and find it difficult to calm our emotions.

We want to depersonalize ourselves, numb ourselves and look the other way. Rather, compassion is associated with activity in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions and actions.

Compassion can be simply defined as empathy plus action to ease someone else’s pain.

The action part of compassion helps us decouple our emotional system from others and see that we are separate individuals.

We don’t have to feel your pain when we witness it. Instead, we have the feeling of wanting to help. And we have a positive and rewarding emotional experience when we feel compassion for another person.

Loving meditation and self-compassion can help if we are overwhelmed by the news.

Here there is four ways to practice compassion while you watch the news.

1. Practice a loving-kindness meditation

When you feel overwhelmed by the news, practice a loving-kindness meditation, where you focus on sending love to yourself, to people you know, and to those you don’t know who are hurting.

If we can create a buffer of positive emotions with compassion, we can think about how to help and act in practical ways in overwhelming situations. Training your “compassion muscles” provides a buffer against negative emotions so you can be more motivated to help and not be overwhelmed by distressing emotions.

Loving-kindness meditation does not reduce negative emotions. Instead, it increases activation in areas of the brain associated with positive emotions like love, hope, connection, and reward.

2. Practice self-compassion

Are you punishing yourself for not being able to help? Or do you feel guilty about the life you have while other people suffer? try to be kind to yourself.

Remember that while our suffering is always specific to us, it is not unusual. We share a common humanity where we all experience some kind of suffering. While you are aware of your suffering, also try not to identify too much with it.

These acts of self-compassion help reduce the distress experienced in empathic burnout and enhance feelings of well-being.

Browsing the internet continuously and reading depressing content is not helpful.

3. Take action

Empathic distress evokes negative feelings, such as stress, and drives us to withdraw and be unsociable. On the contrary, compassion produces positive feelings of love for the other.

It drives us to take action. More specifically, compassion helps motivate sociability. One way to (counter empathic distress) is to engage: donate, volunteer, organize.

4. Stop doomscrolling

It is understandable that we seek information in times of crisis. It helps us to be prepared.

However, the so-called “doomscrolling” (in English, continuously surfing the Internet reading depressing or worrying content on a social network or news site, especially on a phone) is not helpful.

Research on the use of social networks during the pandemic showed that we must be aware of our news consumption to avoid an increase in stress and negative emotions.

Avoiding the news entirely is unrealistic, but limiting our consumption is helpful. Another suggestion is to balance our media consumption by seeking out stories of acts of kindness, which can lift our spirits.

*Trudy Meehan and Jolanta Burke are Professor and Senior Lecturer, respectively, at the Center for Positive Psychology and Health at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

*This note originally appeared on The Conversation and is published here under a Creative Commons license.Click this link to read the original English version.

Source: Elcomercio

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