A long-held truth among psychologists that stress and sadness are contagious has been confirmed in a recent study from the Pew Research Center. The study brought research into the digital age, where people often read about friends' stressors on Facebook or Twitter, finding that struggles experienced by one person can be felt by others.
Women who saw online that a friend's family member died had a 14 percent higher stress level than other women, according to Pew. Men who read that someone close to them was accused of a crime reported a 15 percent higher stress level than other men. Both genders experienced a 9 percent stress increase when an acquaintance posted about a demotion or pay cut.
The phenomenon is called "the cost of caring," and it illustrates one of the unexpected drawbacks of empathizing with others: emotional distress.
Rhiannon Smith, an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Connecticut, said that because of empathy's valuable role in human relationships, it makes sense that it is encouraged by pastors, parents and teachers. But celebrating its benefits shouldn't exclude noting potential costs, she said.
"We have to recognize that these discussions (of other people's problems) can have limits, that there can be too much of a good thing," Smith said.
According to experts, awareness of the potential for empathy overload doesn't mean people should stop checking their Facebook news feed or cover their ears while prayer requests are announced. Instead, individuals can learn to set boundaries, protecting their own mental health while continuing to be with others in their times of need.
Empathy and the brain
In his 2009 book, "The Age of Empathy," psychologist Frans de Waal described what one reviewer called "the biological roots of human kindness." By drawing on his years of observing primates, de Waal corrected the assumption that animals, including humans, are born competitive and uncaring.
"Twenty years ago, people thought it was a conscious decision to express empathy," he said. "It's involuntary. Automatic."
In terms of evolution, De Waal said empathy likely started as an aspect of maternal care.
"Whether you're a mouse or an elephant, you need to be sensitive to the distress and emotions of offspring," he said.
Reading about the death of a friend's family member or hearing about some other stressor is a step removed from maternal empathy, but it releases oxytocin in the brain — the same chemical that's related to a mother responding to a crying child, de Waal noted.
Empathy is also linked to the brain's mirror neurons, which help animals understand and, in some cases, mimic the behavior of others, he said. They're the biological reason behind sayings like, "Smiling is contagious."
Together, the release of oxytocin and activation of mirror neurons make a certain amount of empathy a natural part of human life.
However, it may not be enough, and it still makes sense for teachers, preachers and parents to talk about the importance of empathizing with others, Smith said. Babies may automatically cry when a fellow baby screams, but that doesn't mean they can take the next step to then offer comfort or at least acknowledge the source of pain.
"We are oriented towards caring about the emotions of other people," she said. But being able to imagine walking in someone else's shoes takes work.
Too much of a good thing
Ironically, it's the people most skilled at empathizing who most often experience the cost of caring, Smith said. In one of her studies, which focused on teenagers' friendships, she found that people who are emotionally intelligent are most likely to feel overwhelmed in their effort to care for a friend.
"The more a person has the social-cognitive ability to see where (someone else) is coming from, the more susceptible the person is to taking on that distress," she said.
Other research on empathy has also focused on how an individual's personality and lifestyle affects their vulnerability to the cost of caring.
For example, "When Feeling Other People's Pain Hurts" (paywall), a study cited throughout Pew's research, determined that high levels of self-esteem; mastery, or the ability to reject concepts like bad luck or fate; and education were shown to reduce the likelihood of negative mental health outcomes.
Having a high level of social support, however, was linked to a greater likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms.
"It is possible that social support, unlike self-esteem and mastery, tends to create greater exposure to other people's problems and hardship," making opportunities to empathize a fixture of group interactions, the study reported.
Other studies have shown that health care workers and members of the clergy regularly experience the cost of caring in their professional lives because both fields involve being with people on their hardest days. That's why job training for these roles often addresses the emotional toll, equipping people in the field with tools to serve others while protecting themselves.
Kristen Provost-Switzer, a hospital chaplain intern who is awaiting ordination in the United Church of Christ, said her seminary and chaplaincy experiences have taught her to make time for herself.
"Self-care in our line of work needs to be a discipline and a priority," she said.
After shifts at the hospital, Provost-Switzer sits quietly in the building's chapel, meditating on her experience and praying for as long as it takes to feel balanced. When at home, she likes to go for runs or walk alongside the ocean.
The internship also requires workers to regularly check in with each other and hold each other accountable to asking for help when feeling overwhelmed.
Smith noted that to empathize without becoming overwhelmed, people have to create emotional boundaries. Her advice includes avoiding rehashing a negative event again and again, taking note of more positive situations in the person's life and fostering gratitude every day.
"You should let your loved ones know that you care for them and are there to support them, but also be honest with them and yourself about your own limits," she said. "Recognize that you can serve others better when you're not overwhelmed."
It's important to establish healthy boundaries, de Waal said, because opportunities to feel empathy are ever-present, regardless of how often people bemoan the depersonalization of digital culture.
"People complain that the Internet isolates people because everyone is staring at their iPhone. But at the same time, videos are going around and photos are being sent around. It's stimulated face-to-face contact," he said. "These are direct experiences and they have an enormous effect on us."
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