From the refugee crisis, to our domestic and foreign political melee, to the devastating hurricanes of late, there is plenty of strife going on in the world today. While the 24-7 news cycle is a lot for anyone to process, for a highly empathetic person, every story, photo, or dispatch can easily become an emotional land mine. Fortunately, there is new research on empathy that could help you.
Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science has found that the brain can be trained to display a more level empathic response to the world around us. In humans, scientists now know how much empathy—defined simply as the ability to feel what another is feeling and/or understand what another is feeling—a person will display is at least partly influenced by a single gene, a naturally-occurring genetic variation of the oxytocin receptor. But, it's not just genetics. Sarina Saturn, an assistant professor at the University of Portland studying the biology of social emotions and author of empathy research, explains, “We’re not doomed based on our genetics because we’re very much influenced by our environment."
The past couple weeks I’ve sobbed quietly in my cubicle poring over photographs of families wading through waist-deep water in the aftermaths of Harvey and Irma. Is it possible that even I could learn to manage my emotional reactions?
Saturn thinks we could all benefit from managing our empathic responses to enrich our day-to-day lives, rather than disrupting it. An empathy-induced emotional rollercoaster can take a toll on one's mental wellbeing. As Saturn told me, “Empathy burnout is a thing.”
As we all know from countless stories of so-called “heartless” and narcissistic ex-boyfriends or former friends who were a little too eager to revel in our failures instead of build us up, empathy isn’t a bad thing either. Having high levels of empathy is associated with success, especially in the workplace. Studies have found managers with more empathy are routinely rated as better at their jobs. Having the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experiences of others can also be helpful for effectively communicating with coworkers, friends, romantic partners—or anyone really.
As I’ve searched for ways to balance my own emotions, I’ve found comfort in understanding the why behind my feelings. As Saturn's research has revealed, both our genetics and evolutionary biology play a role in our ability to empathize. When we have an empathetic response the powerful hormone oxytocin floods the body. Produced by the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls hormones and maintains our internal balance, oxytocin is the same neurotransmitter that facilitates social bonding between parent and child. It also works to calm our body when we are stressed.
Saturn said increasing the number of interactions one has with different groups of people can help reduce biases and prejudices, which can make it easier for the brain to relate to others and their emotions. For those of us who, like me, might be internalizing a little too much suffering from the world, Saturn suggests engaging in more mindfulness.
“The idea is to recognize that suffering and compassion and the desire to help, but also not to allow your ego or identification to be swept up in it, so it’s really about helping the other and not about trying to relieve your own panic and distress,” she said.
These days, there’s still a good chance a broadcast of NPR’s Storycorps or ASPCA commercial will cue the waterworks in me, but by exploring where empathy comes from, I’m no longer ashamed of the way I respond to the world. With a little soul searching and emphasis in being more mindful, I’m learning that emotionality is part of who I am—a good part, at that—but it’s something I can pay more attention to and ease myself through. Practicing thinking through my feelings during times when I’m not caught up in them helps me stay balanced in moments when I feel the tears coming. I can’t say I’ll never cry in my cubicle again (of course I will!), but I can say that I’m feeling less and less overwhelmed by empathy and more in control of it.