You have an amazing ability to feel deeply for others, but constantly shouldering other peoples’ pain can cause a unique form of deep exhaustion called empathy fatigue. Here, experts share how to recharge.
When your phone rings, you don’t even need to look at it to know it’s another friend calling to vent about their troubles.
While you want to be there for them, fielding this flurry of difficult emotions is causing you to feel empathy fatigue. Research shows that witnessing others’ emotional pain stimulates the same region of the brain that’s activated when we’re physically injured.
“We literally feel others’ emotions,” explains self-compassion expert Kristin Neff, PhD. “And that’s what is so draining.” When left unchecked, the overload can trigger other toxic feelings like shame, anxiety, and depression. Thankfully the antidote to empathy fatigue is deceptively simple: compassion.
Unlike empathy, which involves receiving another’s pain and so can be draining, compassion involves giving a higher love and so can be revitalizing. “You can call on God, spirit, a loving awareness or anything that fills your heart with love and goodness,” explains Tara Brach, PhD, author of Radical Compassion (Buy on Amazon, $16.99). “This abundant love flowing through us energizes the mind, body and soul and inspires ‘heart-intentions,’ which bring about positive change.”
Indeed, compassion motivates us and spurs action, which, in turn, lights up the brain’s reward center, explains Neff. Just read on for simple ways to tap this powerful loving and uplifting force— for others and yourself.
Overwhelmed? Give yourself a bear hug.
During your drive home, you listen to news reports on the radio that instantly make your chest ache with anxiety as you think about how so many people around the world are suffering right now. In this state of emotional distress, it’s easy to feel helpless and forget just how strong you really are.
Says Neff, “We get so carried away with how awful things are that we forget about our ability to support ourselves.” If you feel a deluge of anxious thoughts coming on, take a moment to give yourself a “hug.”
“Our bodies evolved to understand and crave touch signals,” reveals Neff. Indeed, loving self-touch is proven to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and help regulate heart rate. Just experiment to find what feels most soothing to you.
Try hugging your torso, for example, cradling your face in your hands or placing a hand on your heart. Using this self-compassionate touch when you’re tense or anxious will help ground your mind and body, calming stress and letting you rebound fast.
Guilt-ridden? Ask yourself this question.
More charities than ever are reaching out to you for support, but you feel guilty that you’re struggling too and can’t help as much as you’d like. Yet instead of saying, “I feel bad,” you berate yourself: “I am bad.” When empathy fatigue depletes your emotional defenses, you turn on yourself, falling into a spiral of unfair self-judgment.
Press “pause” and ask yourself where self-critical thoughts are coming from. When Brach struggles with guilt, she asks herself if her judgments are coming from facts or are merely stories she’s telling herself (like “you’re not capable” because of someone’s past criticism).
By pausing to get curious, something fundamental changes, preventing guilt from taking over. “Remember, self-compassion doesn’t mean you have to soothe yourself — you can imagine the love coming from nature, God, a loved one, even a pet.” Just envision them granting you the grace to heal.
Depressed? Take baby steps toward action.
While going through a difficult divorce, your sister leans on you for support — but your long conversations are taking a toll as her sadness rubs off on you, causing you to feel drained. Emotions are contagious, and negative ones can be insidious “energy vampires,” sapping us mentally, emotionally and even physically.
To transform the quicksand of sadness into energizing action, start by “shrinking” your thinking, encourages grief expert Alan Wolfelt, PhD, director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. Ask yourself: What’s one small, loving thing I can do today to be compassionate to myself or someone in my home or community?
Maybe that’s taking a relaxing walk or calling a neighbor to say hello. “Remember, compassion doesn’t just inspire you to act, it inspires you to take wise action,” he says. “When we start with ourselves and channel that love to the people we interact with in our daily lives, we are making a difference!”
Burned out? Try ‘loving’ breathing.
Despite all your efforts as a caregiver, you’ve watched as an aging family member continues to decline, making you feel powerless. While you’re in dire need of a break, pampering yourself isn’t always the answer to the exhaustion associated with empathy fatigue, says Neff. “Self-care is great, but who has the time? When people need you, you can’t drop everything and go to a yoga class or get a massage.” Instead, the best remedies are simple techniques that can be done right there in the moment.
To melt stress in seconds, try “in for me, out for you” breathing. Just imagine breathing in compassion for yourself and breathing out love for the person or issue you’re worried about. In a recent study, health-care workers used this technique to significantly dial down their stress levels and tamp down feelings of burnout.
The benefits increase when we also repeat kind words to ourselves. That’s why Neff created a version of “The Serenity Prayer,” which you can say in the moment: “I am not the cause of this person’s suffering, nor is it completely within my power to make it go away, even though I wish I could.” This mindset is shown to help you bear emotional burdens and boost resilience.
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This article originally appeared in our print magazine.