An excess of empathy can be bad for your mental health

By Trudy Meehan

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

Experiencing empathy has its benefits, but there are also many downsides to it, which is why we must learn to practise healthy empathy.

Empathy is an ability to sync emotionally and cognitively with another person; it is a capacity to perceive a world from their perspective or share their emotional experiences. It is essential for building and maintaining relationships, as it helps us connect with others at a deeper level. It is also associated with higher self-esteem and life purpose.

There are broadly two types of empathy: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Emotional empathy is about sharing feelings with others to the extent that you may experience pain when watching someone in pain, or experience distress when watching someone in distress. This is what happens to many people when they watch upsetting news on TV, especially when they relate to specific people and their lives.

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But emotional empathy isn’t just about experiencing negative emotions. Empathetic people may experience an abundance of positivity when watching other people’s joy, happiness, excitement, or serenity and can get more out of music and other daily pleasures.

While this emotional contagion is suitable for positive states, having too much empathy when watching people suffer can be very upsetting and even lead to mental health problems. Too much empathy towards others, especially when we prioritise other people’s emotions over our own, may result in experiences of anxiety and depression, which explains why so many of us feel bad when watching the news about the war in Ukraine.

The other type of empathy – cognitive empathy – refers to seeing the world through other people’s eyes, seeing it from their perspective, putting ourselves into their shoes without necessarily experiencing the associated emotions and, for example, watching the news and understanding at a cognitive level why people feel despair, distress or anger. This process may lead to emotional empathy or even somatic empathy, where empathy has a physiological effect (somatic being from the ancient Greek word “soma” meaning body).

The effect of empathy on the body has been well documented. For example, parents experiencing high levels of empathy towards their children tend to have chronic low-grade inflammation, leading to lower immunity. Also, our heart beats to the same rhythm when we empathise with others. So the impact of empathy when watching the news is both psychological and physiological. In some circumstances, it may result in what some refer to as “compassion fatigue”.

Misnomer

The burnout experienced by excessive empathy has traditionally been termed 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 the distress we feel when we empathise with people who are suffering. We need less empathy and more compassion.

Empathy and compassion are distinct events in the brain. Empathy for another person’s pain activates areas in the brain associated with negative emotions. Because we feel the other person’s pain, the boundary between the self and others can become blurred if we do not have good boundaries or self-regulation skills and we experience “emotional contagion”.

Click Here To read More https://theconversation.com/an-excess-of-empathy-can-be-bad-for-your-mental-health-178677

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