Reclaiming Words: Empathic Distress

Empathy is a good thing. It is one of the elements of emotional intelligence, together with self awareness, social skills and others. Empathy is basically feeling another person’s pain (or happiness). But too much empathy can cause stress, it can lead to what is called empathic distress fatigue, and is most common for people in caring roles, including nurses, social workers, and humanitarian workers. 

Avoiding burnout, Art Burns says, can be achieved through compassion, rather than empathy. Compassion goes further than empathy because it asks us not just to feel or share someone else’s pain, but to do something about it. It’s a positive emotion and it’s a prosocial emotion. 

When we look at the brain, Burns continues, we can see that empathy and compassion are initiated in different parts. Empathy is in the limbic area of the brain, which is the part that automates, that’s where our habits, our reactions happen. It is not something we can control (without training, at least). Compassion, on the other hand, comes from the neocortex, areas of the brain that are concerned with happiness, caring, love. So empathy drains us, while compassion refills us, energises us.

Indeed it’s often suggested that one way to cope with other people’s distress – or the planet – is to get involved, to contribute, because this gives us a sense of agency, of hope. But what happens to our minds and bodies if we are not able to channel our anger at injustices and suffering into any meaningful change? What if our efforts go unheeded?

[Sources: “Empathic Distress”, Showing Up for Life Podcast, EP 90, Art Burns Coaching Podcast and Science Direct]

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