To enjoy a healthy life, medical professionals often say, you need to eat a balanced diet, do plenty of exercise and maintain a healthy mental well-being. “Stress” is a word often used in that third part of the healthy life equation.

A multitude of studies were conducted to pinpoint the effects of stress over the past 3 decades. We know, for example, that stress can cause everything from heart disease to diarrhoea and even cancer.

What we don’t know is why some people handle stress so well while others crack? For example, tight deadlines can be stressful to some people, but invigorating to some. The question that researchers have been asking is why do some people get stressed in one situation, but others don’t? The answer they found: empathy.

Empathy and Stress

In 1990, Heather Marie Higgins, PhD, conducted a study to look at the effects of empathy training on the stress medical students are under in emotional circumstances.

What Dr. Higgins found was stunning: those who undergo empathy training interacted with patients more compassion - yet their stress levels in emotionally intense encounters decreased.

It’s a counterintuitive finding because most people assume that empathy is the ability to “walk in other people’s shoes” as it were. So when you empathize with someone in a negative state, the logic follows, you’d increase your stress instead of decreasing it.

But the opposite is actually true.

Those who lack the ability to empathize often pick up the stress of others without knowing why - a concept that researchers call “second-hand stress”. And if you think it’s rare, think again. Researchers found that stress spread just as quickly as common cold does.

There are two reasons for the spread of second-hand stress

  • Anxiety – if you don’t know why your spouse is depressed, for example, you will be under stress to find out.
  • Mirror neurons – these are special brain cells that allows us to mimic what others are feeling, subconsciously.

And because empathy involves understanding what others are going through (which is a conscious activity), those who do it well are resistant to the negative influence of second-hand stress – and therefore saving themselves from all its health implications.

How to Develop Empathy

Now, you may think it’s impossible for you to be empathetic, but here’s the fact: we’re all born with the cognitive mechanism to learn it.

Newborns, for example, will cry when other newborns cry, and they will display signs of distress when their parents are in distress - even if they don’t know what’s going on. You might be forgiven if you think all newborns do this but they don’t.

Only those who have been given sufficient amount of empathy develop empathy. Those who don’t, on the other hand, have difficulty developing it. Which brings us to how do we develop empathy:

If you want to be empathetic, be around empathetic people.

Ask a random set of 100 people and most will agree that “you have to be there to know what it’s like”. But the opposite is actually true: empathy develops from the experience of empathy, not suffering.

So try this: volunteer at a local charitable organization in a position where you have to directly deal with someone in need - be they homeless, disabled or just aging. It’s not just the practice that helps you develop empathy (although it certainly helps) but the community - these are some of the most empathetic people out there!

Be in a safe environment.

Have you ever tried to study math in the middle of a war zone? Unthinkable, right? The same is true with empathy: it’s almost impossible to learn empathy when you’re surrounded with people who abuse you - physically or emotionally.

Now, the people around may not be directly abusing you, but a strained relationship with a spouse, for example, or a group of backstabbing friends is enough to trigger your “fight or flight” mode - making empathy difficult to learn.

Learn Both Sides of Empathy

There are two types of empathy: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to identify what others think and/or feel. Affective empathy is the ability to respond appropriately.

Psychopaths, for example, are really good at the former but not of the latter. Most parents, on the other hand, would do anything for their kids (affective) if only they know what they are going through.

Fortunately for us, both are skills that can be learned. And this is might come as a shock to you, but the best book to learn empathy, as far as I know, is a little classic called How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk.

Andrianes Pinantoan is part of the team behind Open Colleges, an education provider with great aged care courses. When not working, he can be found on Google+.