Strengthening Your Empathic Muscles

Image courtesy: Krissy Murphy Benson

We are wired to care, down to the neurochemical level. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide (hormone) that is produced in the brain (hypothalamus) and is then distributed through your body by your bloodstream. It’s commonly know that breastfeeding mothers release oxytocin, as do couples during intimacy and friends during a warm hug. It is also released when we show compassion and kindness to others.

A review of the neuropsychological research on oxytocin states that the hormone has a significant impact on “pro-social behaviors” and emotional regulation, and contributes to relaxation, trust, decreased anxiety, and psychological stability.

Exciting Developments in Empathy Research
Studies have also found that oxytocin may help induce altruism. For example, in one research study, participants were given a nasal oxytocin spray which resulted in increases in generosity. The study participants were given money to keep or to share with others. They were significantly more willing to share money with a stranger with a squirt of the neurotransmitter. As such, oxytocin has been dubbed “the moral molecule,” by neuroeconomist Dr. Paul Zak.

Psychology researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler studied a neighborhood in Massachusetts, and found that many community behaviors are contagious. If your neighbor goes on a diet, you go on a diet. If a person a couple of blocks away started smoking, other people on the street started smoking. However, they found that prosocial behaviors, such as community service and sharing meals and resources were among the most “contagious”. Community members participating in acts of kindness showed significant increases in satisfaction and happiness, and decreases in anxiety.

An MRI study led by Dr. Gaëlle Desbordes at Massachusetts General Hospital indicated that both compassion meditation (also known as Loving-Kindness meditation) and mindfulness meditation training decreased activity in the amygdala in response to emotional images; however, brain activity simultaneously indicated a response to the emotional images. This suggests that meditation can help improve emotion regulation and increase calmness, WITHOUT reducing awareness of emotionally-laden or upsetting information.

How to flex your empathy muscles:
Actively Listen More Than You Speak

    • Commit your undivided attention to the conversation. That means no cell phones, tablets, or computers.
    • Let the speaker actually speak. Give them the time they need to finish their thoughts and avoid interrupting them.
    • Summarize your understanding. Once the speaker has finished talking, summarize your understanding back to them. Then ask, “Have I understood this correctly?”
    • Allow the other person to vent. When someone’s having troubles, they may be emotionally flustered. Give them the space to feel that.

Be Vulnerable
People often fear vulnerability because they worry others may perceive them as weak. Dr. Brené Brown has written that vulnerability actually helps us directly connect with others, by communicating that we’re human; complete with weaknesses, hurts, grief, and fears.

Make it a practice to help one person every day
Clinical psychologist Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky showed that people who perform acts of kindness (five acts each week in her studies) tend to feel happier and more connected to others after six weeks.

Visualize helping
Every morning, take a few minutes to visualize helping some of the people you know you will encounter during the day. In psychology, this is called “priming,” and lots of new research suggests it’s very effective in shaping behavior. For example, a study by psychologists Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver found that people were more willing to help someone in need after being prompted to think about a caring and supportive figure in their personal lives.

Draw on personal talents
Research shows that people find it easier to consistently help others when they are doing things they are good at. Reaching out in the way that best reflects you has the most longevity.

Acknowledge others in your life
Research by psychologist Christopher Peterson found that writing a gratitude letter made people feel significantly happier for a month.

Read also: The Science of Compassion.

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