Cultural Chameleon BLOG

Empathy and stress, a near impossible partnership
Posted by admin on 20th March 2019

Previously I wrote a blog about how stress has a negative effect on our creativity and mid last year my blog focused on key reasons why people struggle with empathy.
However, during a recent conference, I listened to Dr Trisha Stratford discuss how stress seriously affects our ability to be empathetic. I felt that my last blog had missed the obvious and probably the most common impediment to empathy. Yet on reflection this, of course, comes as no surprise. Our ancestor’s survival depended on stress, placing them in the flight/fight response mode hence preparing them to either battle with or flee from the sabre-toothed tiger. In such situations empathy servers little purpose. If they started to look at life from the sabre-toothed tiger’s point of view, instead of grabbing a weapon or making a quick exit, they would end up being eaten.

Unfortunately we are still reacting to today’s stresses as if they were a sabre-toothed tiger when in fact we are now dealing with very different beasts. Common examples of today’s demons take the form of long hours, household debt, traffic and reduced relaxation time. In these circumstances our antiquated flight/fight stress response serves little purpose. Moreover, when this same stress response impairs our ability to have empathy, we potentially face long-term damage to our relationships both in the workplace and at home, which will consequently bring even more stress into our lives. Unlike our former example of escaping the sabre-toothed tiger, when solving today’s conflicts we overwhelmingly need to be able to see the world from the other person’s point of view. If we are unable to do so, disputes will remain unresolved and will often escalate, taking vast amounts of time, energy and sometimes even money, should legal advice have to be sought. All too often a different approach, based on each party’s understanding of the other person’s point of view, could have resulted in a compromise or a win-win solution for both parties.

The biggest issue with stress is that for most of us it is unavoidable, therefore,if we wish to increase our level of empathy we are left with just two courses of action. Firstly we can look for ways to become more resilient. One example of a way to increase our resilience is highlighted in Dr Stratford’s recent research. Dr Stratford has shown how slowing our thinking and increasing our focus on our current task enables us to move away from our flight/fight response and towards peak performance resilient behaviours. Such techniques have been practised for many years by high achievers such as elite sportsmen.

Our second course of action is to consider carefully the level of stress that our own decisions will have on our lives. For example it is all too easy to get carried away with the house we can only just afford, only to find in a few years’ time we are financially high jacked to the decision, and suffer overwhelming stress by trying to make repayments. Stopping and thinking how such choices could consequently affect our ability to have empathy, and how, in turn, this could cause the breakdown of family relationships, could prompt us to rethink such decisions

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