The Trauma Recovery Institute

When Stress Rises, Empathy Suffers

Among the many contradictions of humans, some of the more striking ones concern empathy. Our hearts break at a disaster on another continent, and we send money to people whose faces we will never see. We look after the well-being of our pets with deep, empathic concern. We feel the pain of characters in a novel. But at the same time, we can walk past a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk without noticing him. It’s no news that we’re one very complicated species.
The challenge is to make sense of such behavior, to understand the circumstances that foster or hinder empathy. A recent study published in Current Biology—I’m one of the paper’s many co-authors—uncovers some of its biological underpinnings. The research, conducted by Loren Martin and Jeffrey Mogil of McGill University in Montreal and colleagues, explores the effects of stress on empathy. It’s well established that stress and the hormones secreted when we’re stressed alter brain function. They disrupt aspects of learning and memory, impair judgment and impulse control, and increase the risks of anxiety and depression. As it turns out, the hormones also disrupt aspects of empathy.
Feeling someone else’s pain can alter how we feel about our own. If you watch a needle poke the hand of someone you identify with, your own hand tenses. You display “emotional contagion,” a rudimentary version of empathy. Some years ago, Dr. Mogil showed that even mice display such emotional contagion; their sensitivity to pain increased when they were exposed to another mouse in pain. Even more remarkably, the effect depended on familiarity: It only occurred if the other mouse was a cage mate. A stranger provoked no emotional contagion.
Why doesn’t a stranger evoke such empathy? A mouse exposed to a new mouse has a stress response, secreting a class of stress hormones called glucocorticoids. The scientists in the McGill study gave mice drugs that temporarily blocked either the secretion or the action of glucocorticoids. As a result, the mice displayed emotional contagion for strangers. The stress response had been blocking their capacity for empathy. The researchers then moved on to human volunteers and were able to demonstrate the same effect: Subjects showed empathic emotional contagion (i.e., increased pain ratings in response to a noxious stimulus) when in the presence of a friend in pain, but not a stranger. When the scientists blocked glucocorticoids in humans, they reacted as the mice had: Strangers elicited emotional contagion. Dr. Mogil and his colleagues are now figuring out which brain regions are involved in this reaction and how stress hormones affect it.
In another part of the study, scientists explored what it would take to alter “stranger” status in this setting. Before pain testing, they paired a subject and a stranger to “play” four Beatles songs in the videogame “Rock Band.” After a mere 15 minutes of this shared social experience, ex-strangers now elicited empathic emotional contagion. It’s rare to find individuals in whom stress brings out the best—fostering calm, rational thinking, deep humanity and the notion that strangers are just friends you’ve yet to meet. More typically, stress literally and metaphorically narrows our field of vision; it tends to makes us less generous and cooperative in economic games, more xenophobic, more likely to interpret ambiguous expressions as hostile ones, and more likely to displace frustration and aggression onto those around us. As this new study on the biology of stress found, it also makes us less likely to feel someone else’s pain. Science has amply demonstrated that, when we are stressed, there are adverse consequences for our blood pressure, digestive tract, immune system and so on. This research shows that, when we are stressed, there are also adverse consequences for those stuck being around us.

By Professor Robert Sapolsky

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Working with Stress at Trauma Recovery Institute
Trauma Recovery Institute offers unparalleled services and treatment approach through unique individual and group psychotherapy. We specialise in long-term relational trauma recovery, sexual trauma recovery and early childhood trauma recovery. We also offer specialized group psychotherapy for psychotherapists and psychotherapy students, People struggling with addictions and substance abuse, sexual abuse survivors and people looking to function in life at a higher level. Trauma recovery Institute offers a very safe supportive space for deep relational work with highly skilled and experienced psychotherapists accredited with Irish Group Psychotherapy Society (IGPS), which holds the highest accreditation standard in Europe. Trauma Recovery Institute uses a highly structured psychotherapeutic approach called Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP).

Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP) at Trauma Recovery Institute Dublin

Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP) is a highly structured, once to twice weekly-modified psychodynamic treatment based on the psychoanalytic model of object relations. This approach is also informed by the latest in neuroscience, interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory. As with traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy relationship takes a central role within the treatment and the exploration of internal relational dyads. Our approach differs in that also central to the treatment is the focus on the transference and countertransference, an awareness of shifting bodily states in the present moment and a focus on the client’s external relationships, emotional life and lifestyle.
Dynamic Psychosocialsomatic Psychotherapy (DPP) is an integrative treatment approach for working with complex trauma, borderline personality organization and dissociation. This treatment approach attempts to address the root causes of trauma-based presentations and fragmentation, seeking to help the client heal early experiences of abandonment, neglect, trauma, and attachment loss, that otherwise tend to play out repetitively and cyclically throughout the lifespan in relationship struggles, illness and addictions. Clients enter a highly structured treatment plan, which is created by client and therapist in the contract setting stage. The Treatment plan is contracted for a fixed period of time and at least one individual or group session weekly.
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“Talk therapy alone is not enough to address deep rooted trauma that may be stuck in the body, we need also to engage the body in the therapeutic process and engage ourselves as clients and therapists to a complex interrelational therapeutic dyad, right brain to right brain, limbic system to limbic system in order to address and explore trauma that persists in our bodies as adults and influences our adult relationships, thinking and behaviour.”


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