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Sharing others Feelings

Posted 5/16/2016

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  One reason sometimes given for not being interested in attending a support group or even in talking with others who have cancer is that their worries and feelings will be contagious. That is, people sometimes worry that they will leave a group feeling worse than they did before they came. In a well-run group, that won't happen as the facilitator will be attentive and careful.

  Thanks to Allison for sending on this article that confirms that this is real worry and gives some excellent tips to avoid that outcome:

How sharing other people’s feelings can make you sick

Everyone says we need more empathy – but too much of it can burn you out. Mind training lessons from monks and psychopaths could help us care without crumbling

hands touching illustration

Simon Prades

By Emma Young

TANIA SINGER wasn’t the first person to put a Buddhist monk in an fMRI machine. But the neuroscientists who had scanned supposedly caring, sharing brains before did it to find out where empathy comes from. Singer was looking for ways to avoid it.
Few people would argue that the world is cursed with an excess of empathy. But we are starting to discover that our capacity to share other’s emotions and take their perspective comes with a sting in its tail. Overdosing on the misfortunes of others is not just a problem for those in high-exposure professions such as nursing. All of us are vulnerable to catching the pain of others, making us angrier, unhappier, and possibly even sicker.
Fortunately, work on locating the root of empathy in the brain has also led to the discovery that with the right training, we might be able to tune how much we let others’ emotions affect us. This could allow us the best of both worlds – to care, without letting it consume us.
Empathy is undeniably a good thing. Understanding how others are feeling is a bonding mechanism that we are finding in an increasing number of animals, including dolphins and rats. In humans, primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has suggested that being affected by another’s emotional state was the earliest step in our evolution as a collaborative species.
But the pitfalls will be apparent to anyone who has been in a room full of babies. If one starts crying, pretty soon, they’re all at it. Babies don’t understand the difference between their own emotions and those being felt by others, and so what one feels, they all feel. Negative and positive emotions alike spread like a virus. As our sense of self develops, we learn to distinguish other people’s emotions from our own, although a variety of experiments, most recently studying our behaviour in online social networks, indicate we are not entirely free of the risk of emotional contagion (see “Socially contagious“).
That’s because the distinction between what we and others feel isn’t terribly clear to our brains. Singer, then at University College London (UCL), and her colleagues demonstrated this in 2004 when they put 16 romantic couples into an MRI scanner. When they gave the volunteers a painful electrical shock, this elicited activity in brain regions known to respond to physical pain and also in regions tuned to emotional pain. But when volunteers saw their loved one get a shock, no activity registered in their physical pain centres – while the emotion regions lit up like fireworks. Notable among these was the anterior insula, where a lot of the coordination between brain and body takes place.
Since then, many other studies have confirmed that this “empathy for pain” network exists, and that it doesn’t distinguish whether the pain you’re observing is physical or psychological. “The basic principle is the same,” says Singer, who is now at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany.
What’s more, over the past few years it has become apparent that we don’t just catch pain from those we are intimate with. The first hints came from people in care-giving professions who often see the stress and pain of others, such as hospice staff, nurses, psychotherapists and paediatricians. Since the early 1990s, a kind of empathy burnout has increasingly been documented – given names including “secondary traumatic stress” and “vicarious traumatisation”. Symptoms include lowered ability to feel empathy and sympathy, increased anger and anxiety, and more absenteeism (see “The hurt locker”). Various studies link these symptoms with an indifferent attitude to patients, depersonalisation and poorer care.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that empathy burnout can affect people frequently surrounded by other people’s pain. But a recent spate of experiments suggests that the dark side of empathy spells trouble for everyone. You can “catch” stress any time you understand someone else’s pain and share in it, activating your empathy for pain network.

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