An estimated one-third of people will suffer from stress or fear-related disorders at some point in their lifetime. Certain traumatic memories can stick with us and wreak havoc, causing chronic anxiety, depression, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the most successful trauma treatments available is a behavioral therapy called “exposure therapy.”
Neuroscientist don’t yet fully understand how neurons store our memories. The mystery fuels a considerable debate in the field: Do exposure-type therapies work by suppressing a memory trace of fear and replacing it with a new memory trace of calm and safety? Or does the process involve a rewriting of the neurons that are active during traumatic recall?
Although the authors of this new study say suppression may still play a role, they were able to observe for the first time neuronal reprogramming of long-term traumatic memories.
Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL) discovered long-lasting trauma (remote fear) reduction in the brain is correlated with activation of the same neurons involved in memory storage. Looking at mouse brains, the scientists zeroed in on a group of neurons in the dentate gyrus.
The dentate gyrus is part of the hippocampus; an area critical for memory encoding, retrieval, and abatement of fear. Previous studies show the dentate gyrus plays a crucial role in generating contextual memories of fear. It also appears to generate new neurons, a process called neurogenesis.
The mice in this study were genetically modified to carry a gene that emits a signal–a fluorescent protein–following neuronal activity. The researchers used a fear-training exercise to give the mice long-lasting traumatic memories. This allowed the scientists to pinpoint a group of neurons in the dentate gyrus involved in storing and recall of long-term traumatic memories.
The mice then went to therapy (fear-extinction training) a mouse-in-a-lab approximation of exposure therapy. The scientists discovered that some of the neurons active during the recall of traumatic memories were still active when the rodents no longer showed fear. And the less the mice were afraid, the more cells were reactivated. It’s the first indication that this group of neurons in the dentate gyrus may be involved in storing memories as well as reducing the impact of traumatic memories.
The researchers put the mice through exposure therapy again, this time reducing the excitability of the recall neurons. With the recall neurons turned down, the mice showed less fear reduction (exposure therapy less effective) compared to the controls. The researchers then dampened the excitability of other neurons in the dentate gyrus, but found these other neurons didn’t seem to influence fear reduction.
Empathy is a broad concept that refers to the cognitive and emotional reactions of an individual to the observed experiences of another. Having empathy increases the likelihood of helping others and showing compassion. “Empathy is a building block of morality – for people to follow the Golden Rule, it helps if they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” according to the Greater Good Science Center, a research institute that studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being. “It is also a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others.”
Researchers distinguish between two types of empathy. Especially in social psychology, empathy can be categorized as an emotional or cognitive response. Emotional empathy consists of three separate components, Hodges and Myers say. “The first is feeling the same emotion as another person … The second component, personal distress, refers to one’s own feelings of distress in response to perceiving another’s plight … The third emotional component, feeling compassion for another person, is the one most frequently associated with the study of empathy in psychology,” they explain.
It is important to note that feelings of distress associated with emotional empathy don’t necessarily mirror the emotions of the other person. Hodges and Myers note that, while empathetic people feel distress when someone falls, they aren’t in the same physical pain. This type of empathy is especially relevant when it comes to discussions of compassionate human behavior. There is a positive correlation between feeling empathic concern and being willing to help others. “Many of the most noble examples of human behavior, including aiding strangers and stigmatized people, are thought to have empathic roots,” according to Hodges and Myers. Debate remains concerning whether the impulse to help is based in altruism or self-interest.
The second type of empathy is cognitive empathy. This refers to how well an individual can perceive and understand the emotions of another. Cognitive empathy, also known as empathic accuracy, involves “having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how the person feels,” Hodges and Myers say. Cognitive empathy is more like a skill: Humans learn to recognize and understand others’ emotional state as a way to process emotions and behavior. While it’s not clear exactly how humans experience empathy, there is a growing body of research on the topic.
How Do We Empathize?
Experts in the field of social neuroscience have developed two theories in an attempt to gain a better understanding of empathy. The first, Simulation Theory, “proposes that empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we ‘simulate’ or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like,” according to Psychology Today.
There is a biological component to this theory as well. Scientists have discovered preliminary evidence of “mirror neurons” that fire when humans observe and experience emotion. There are also “parts of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-level kinds of thought) that show overlap of activation for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts and judgments,” the same article explains.
Some experts believe the other scientific explanation of empathy is in complete opposition to Simulation Theory. It’s Theory of Mind, the ability to “understand what another person is thinking and feeling based on rules for how one should think or feel,” Psychology Today says. This theory suggests that humans can use cognitive thought processes to explain the mental state of others. By developing theories about human behavior, individuals can predict or explain others’ actions, according to this theory.
While there is no clear consensus, it’s likely that empathy involves multiple processes that incorporate both automatic, emotional responses and learned conceptual reasoning. Depending on context and situation, one or both empathetic responses may be triggered.
Empathy seems to arise over time as part of human development, and it also has roots in evolution. In fact, “Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats,” the Greater Good Science Center says. From a developmental perspective, humans begin exhibiting signs of empathy in social interactions during the second and third years of life. According to Jean Decety’s article “The Neurodevelopment of Empathy in Humans,” “There is compelling evidence that prosocial behaviors such as altruistic helping emerge early in childhood. Infants as young as 12 months of age begin to comfort victims of distress, and 14- to 18-month-old children display spontaneous, unrewarded helping behaviors.”
And it’s true that we likely feel empathy due to evolutionary advantage: “Empathy probably evolved in the context of the parental care that characterizes all mammals. Signaling their state through smiling and crying, human infants urge their caregiver to take action … females who responded to their offspring’s needs out-reproduced those who were cold and distant,” according to the Greater Good Science Center. This may explain gender differences in human empathy.
This suggests we have a natural predisposition to developing empathy. However, social and cultural factors strongly influence where, how, and to whom it is expressed. Empathy is something we develop over time and in relationship to our social environment, finally becoming “such a complex response that it is hard to recognize its origin in simpler responses, such as body mimicry and emotional contagion,” the same source says.
Psychology and Empathy
In the field of psychology, empathy is a central concept. From a mental health perspective, those who have high levels of empathy are more likely to function well in society, reporting “larger social circles and more satisfying relationships,” according to Good Therapy, an online association of mental health professionals. Empathy is vital in building successful interpersonal relationships of all types, in the family unit, workplace, and beyond. Lack of empathy, therefore, is one indication of conditions like antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. In addition, for mental health professionals such as therapists, having empathy for clients is an important part of successful treatment. “Therapists who are highly empathetic can help people in treatment face past experiences and obtain a greater understanding of both the experience and feelings surrounding it,” Good Therapy explains.
Empathy plays a crucial role in human, social, and psychological interaction during all stages of life. Consequently, the study of empathy is an ongoing area of major interest for psychologists and neuroscientists in many fields, with new research appearing regularly. Lesley University’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology gives students the opportunity to study the field of human interaction within the broader spectrum of psychology.
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Stephen has been married twice. Two wedding days. Two “I do”s. Yet Stephen has no happy memories from either – or, in fact, from the marriages or any of his relationships.
He met his first wife on a pre-nursing course when he was just 16. Six years later, they were married. Three years after that, they got divorced; she was never really the right one for him, he says.
Almost two decades on, in 2009, he met his second wife through a dating site. He threw himself into the relationship and, the following year, with his father and her two adult siblings present, they married at the registrar’s office in Sheffield, where they both live.
He put on smiles for the wedding photos because he recognized that they were expected but, as he explains: “From an inner feeling point of view, anything I do that requires an emotional response feels like a fake.
“Most of my responses are learned responses. In an environment where everyone is being jolly and happy, it feels like I’m lying. Acting. Which I am. So it is a lie.”
Happiness isn’t the only emotion that Stephen struggles with. Excitement, shame, disgust, anticipation, even love… he doesn’t feel these, either. “I feel something but I’m unable to distinguish in any real way what that feeling is.” The only emotions he is familiar with are fear and anger.
Such profound problems with emotion are sometimes associated with autism, which Stephen does not have, or with psychopathy, which he doesn’t have, either.
Last year, at the age of 51, he finally learned what he does have: a little-known condition called alexithymia, a word made from Greek parts meaning, roughly, “no words for emotion”.
Despite the name, the real problem for people with alexithymia isn’t so much that they have no words for their emotions, but that they lack the emotions themselves. Still, not everyone with the condition has the same experiences. Some have gaps and distortions in the typical emotional repertoire.
Some realise they’re feeling an emotion, but don’t know which, while others confuse signs of certain emotions for something else – perhaps interpreting butterflies in the stomach as hunger pangs.
Surprisingly, given how generally unrecognised it is, studies show that about one in 10 people fall on the alexithymia spectrum. New research is now revealing what’s going wrong – and this work holds the promise not only of novel treatments for disorders of emotion, but of revealing just how the rest of us feel anything at all.
After working as a nurse for 10 years, Stephen decided he wanted to do something different. A two-year Access to University course led to a degree in astronomy and physics, and then to a job testing computer games.
He built a successful career for himself, working for various companies in their computer testing departments, managing teams, and travelling around the world to speak at conferences. He had no problem conveying facts to colleagues.
It was in the context of more personal relationships – or any other scenario that would typically involve expressions of emotion – that he felt things were “wrong”.
“At the beginning of a relationship, I’m totally into who that person is,” he explains. “I’ve been told I’m very good at maintaining a honeymoon period for ‘longer than expected’. But after a year it takes a massive turn. It all falls apart. I’ve put myself on a pedestal to be this person which I’m really not. I react mostly cognitively, rather than it being emotions making me react. Obviously, that is not valid. It’s not real. It seems fake. Because it is fake. And you can only pretend for so long.”
He and his current wife stopped living together in 2012. He saw a GP and was prescribed antidepressants. Though he was still in contact with his wife, it was clear that the relationship was no longer working. In June 2015, he attempted suicide.
“I had actually been posting on Facebook and Twitter regarding killing myself and someone – I’ve never found out who – contacted the police. I was taken to hospital and treated.”
A psychiatrist referred Stephen for a series of counselling sessions and then a course of psychodynamic psychotherapy, a type of Freudian-based therapy that, in trying to uncover unconscious drivers of thoughts and behaviour, is similar to psychoanalysis.
It was in a book called Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt, which his therapist recommended, that he first came across the concept of alexithymia.
“I brought it up in therapy, and that’s when we started talking about how I was very alexithymic. Obviously, I’ve got a vocabulary. I’ve got words for emotions. But whether they’re the right words for the right emotion is a different point altogether… I just thought that I wasn’t good at talking about how I feel and emotions and stuff like that. But after a year of therapy, it became apparent that when I talk about emotions I don’t actually know what I’m talking about.”
The term “alexithymic” dates from a book published in 1972 and has its origins in Freudian psychodynamic literature.
Freudian ideas are now out of favour with most academic psychologists, as Geoff Bird, a professor of psychology at the University of Oxford explains. “Not to disrespect those traditions, but in the cognitive, neuro, experimental field, not so many people are really very interested in anything associated with Freud any more.”
But when Bird read about alexithymia, he found the descriptions intriguing. “Actually, it’s really quite amazing.” For most people, “at a low level of emotion, you might be a bit unsure about exactly what you’re feeling, but if you have a strong emotion, you know what it is”. And yet somehow, here were people who simply did not know.
Bird started his academic career studying autism spectrum disorder, empathy and emotional awareness, which led to his interest in alexithymia.
In one of his first studies in this field, he linked alexithymia, as measured with a 20-item checklist developed at the University of Toronto, with a lack of empathy. If you can’t feel your own emotions in the typical way, it makes sense that you can’t identify with those of others, either.
But what really drew Bird into alexithymia research were his interactions with people with autism. “There has been this perception that people with autism don’t have empathy. And that’s rubbish. And you can see that immediately as soon as you meet some autistic people.”
In a series of studies, Bird has found that about half of people with autism have alexithymia – it’s these people who struggle with emotion and empathy, while the rest do not. In other words, emotion-related difficulties are intrinsic to the alexithymia, not to the autism.
Bird is passionate about spreading this message. He talks with feeling about one particular autistic study volunteer who did not have alexithymia: “A lovely guy with an IQ we couldn’t measure, it’s that good. He couldn’t hold down a job. But he volunteered to work at a care home because he wanted to do something productive with his time.
“They said, ‘Oh because you’ve got a diagnosis of autism you can’t do empathy, therefore you can’t look after our elderly people.’ Which is just ridiculous.”
Bird has since run a series of studies exploring alexithymia outside the context of autism. He has found, for example, that people with the condition have no trouble recognising faces, or distinguishing pictures of people smiling and frowning.
“But for a few of our really alexithymic people, while they can tell a smile and a frown apart, they have no idea what they are. That is really quite strange.”
Many of the people with the condition who Bird has met talk about being told by other people that they’re different, though some do recognise it in themselves early on.
“I guess it’s a bit like not being able to see colour, and everybody’s always banging on about how red this is or how blue, and you come to realise there’s an aspect of human experience that you’re just not participating in.”
As well as better characterising alexithymia, Bird and his colleagues have also dug into what explains it, taking what could seem to be a circular argument – Stephen has problems with emotion because he has alexithymia, which is characterised by problems with emotion – and blowing it right apart.
In situations that Stephen recognises as being in theory highly emotional – like telling someone “I love you” – he experiences changes inside his body. “I feel my heart race and this rush of adrenaline, but to me that feeling is always scary. I don’t know how to react. It makes me want to either run away or react verbally aggressively.”
Fear and anger – and confusion – he understands. “Everything else just feels all the same… it’s this feeling of, ‘Errrr, I’m not quite comfortable with this – it’s not quite right’.”
For Rebecca Brewer, a former student of Bird’s and now a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, this makes sense. “With alexithymia, people often know that they are experiencing an emotion but don’t know which emotion it is,” she explains. “This means they could still experience depression, possibly because they struggle to differentiate between different negative emotions, and struggle to identify [positive] emotions.
“Similarly with anxiety, it might be that someone experiences an emotional response associated with a fast heartbeat – which might be excitement – but they don’t know how to interpret that, and they could panic about what’s happening in their body.”
The ability to detect changes inside the body – everything from a racing heart to a diversion of blood flow, from a full bladder to a distension of the lungs – is known as interoception. It’s your perception of your own internal state.
Different emotions are associated with different physical changes. In anger, for example, the heart rate rises, blood rushes to the face, and fists clench. In fear, the heart rate also rises but blood drains from the face.
It’s generally thought that these changes are not entirely specific to individual emotions, and so context is also important: if you feel your heart racing and you’re looking at a spider, you know it’s fear that you’re feeling, not sexual arousal.
What Bird, Brewer and others have found in people with alexithymia is a reduced ability, sometimes a complete inability, to produce, detect or interpret these internal bodily changes. People with the condition have normal-range IQs.
They can understand as well as anyone else that they’re seeing a spider, rather than an attractive potential partner. But either their brains aren’t triggering the physical changes that it seems are needed for the experience of an emotion, or other regions of their brains aren’t reading these signals properly.
In 2016, Bird and Brewer, along with Richard Cook at City University in London, published a research paper that characterised alexithymia as a “generalised deficit of interoception”.
Here, then, was an explanation for these people’s problems with emotion – but also, in effect, a manifesto stating that the perception of a range of bodily signals is important for the experience of emotion in the rest of us.
It’s an idea that we already express in everyday language: in English, for an apology to mean anything, it has to be “heartfelt”. If you truly love someone, it’s with “all your heart”.
When you’re really angry, your “blood boils”. Instead of saying that you’re anxious, you might talk about having “butterflies in your stomach” (thought to be caused by a diversion of blood flow away from the digestive system).
While most people may not be familiar with alexithymia, there is a different disorder involving flat emotions and poor empathy that seems to fascinate us, even more than it repels us: psychopathy. Can we learn more about how we feel by understanding psychopaths?
Lieke Nentjes is in her early thirties. She’s slender and softly spoken; it’s hard to picture her spending countless hours in small rooms with incarcerated, unshackled psychopaths, including serially violent men who have committed murder.
As Nentjes talks, though, she reveals her confidence. “One time, there was this pretty big fella with wild, long hair sat across from me, and he suddenly said [raising her voice and half getting up from her chair]: ‘Aren’t you afraid of me?’ I was surprised. I didn’t see that coming. And I went: ‘Why – are you afraid of me?’ And he sat back down.
“Then he explained that he was at the end of his therapy and was ‘resocialising’ and no one would hire him because they were intimidated by him. He wasn’t really angry. He was frustrated.”
While the nature of psychopathy is still debated, psychologists generally agree that it entails, among other things, a lack of empathy or guilt, shallow emotions, and antisocial behaviour – treating other people badly and, in some cases, engaging in criminal acts.
It has certainly been suggested that the reason some psychopaths are able to torture or murder people is that they don’t process emotions properly – they don’t feel fear, for example, and they don’t recognise it in others.
Nentjes is based at the University of Amsterdam. Here in the Netherlands, if a criminal is found to have a psychological condition that relates to the crime, he or she is deemed to be only partially responsible.
Such criminals might spend a few years in a regular jail before being sent to a secure treatment centre, or they may be sent straight for treatment.
Nentjes decided to assess a range of criminals from these centres and from jails to find out just how psychopathic they were (with particular attention to different aspects of psychopathy), to learn about their lives – their upbringing, and their criminal behaviour – and also to measure their interoceptive ability.
“Emotion is very central when you look at psychopathy – or rather, lack of emotion,” she says. So could it be that psychopathic offenders just aren’t very in touch with their bodies?
In the course of the interviews, Nentjes asked questions to probe their levels of empathy, and how much remorse they felt about what they had done to their victims. “Some were just completely honest, and would say, ‘I don’t care,’” she says.
“Others who were psychopathic would say, ‘Oh, but I’m very empathic.’ They had learned the lingo to describe feelings very accurately and they could talk about compassionate, empathic feelings towards others – but then when you look at the crimes they have committed…” Her sentence trails off.
“There is research finding that psychopathic offenders can describe emotions in terms of words, but they lack the inner experience of the emotion,” she adds.
Since assessing a person’s ability to detect a range of bodily signals is tricky, the most commonly used measures of interoceptive sensitivity are based on judgements of heart rate. One test involves asking participants to count their heartbeats over varying periods – 25 or 50 seconds, perhaps – multiple times.
About 10 per cent of us are good at counting heartbeats, 5 to 10 per cent are very bad, and the rest fall somewhere in between.
In another test, volunteers are played a series of beeps that are either in sync or out of sync with their heartbeat, and asked which it is. On this type of task, about 10 per cent of the general population can do it really well, and 80 per cent can’t do it at all.
Nentjes brought the necessary equipment for the heartbeat synch task with her into the interview rooms, and took measures for 75 offenders. She found a clear link: the higher an offender’s score on the antisocial aspect of psychopathy, the poorer their performance on the heart-rate task.
This does at least suggest that psychopaths who are poorer at detecting bodily signals feel less emotion and therefore less empathy for others.
Psychopathic criminals are sometimes divided into the “white-collar” type, who tend to commit non-violent crimes such as fraud, and the violent type. In her interviews with this violent group, Nentjes was struck by one similarity, in particular, compared with the white-collar group.
“That was their upbringing. Or rather lack of it. Emotional abuse. Sexual abuse. Neglect. A lot of physical abuse. I’ve heard people literally say that emotion is not of use to them. All they felt during their upbringing was fear.”
As a child, Stephen suffered extreme emotional neglect. When he was six, his mother intentionally set fire to their home in Nottingham while she, Stephen, his younger brother and even younger sister were all inside. Fortunately, the children’s father, who had left for work, realised that he’d forgotten his packed lunch and came home.
Looking back, Stephen says it’s clear that his mother was suffering from post-natal depression. But she received no treatment, “and all I knew was anxiety and being worried”. After the fire, his mother went to prison. His father was a steelworker, who worked all kinds of shifts.
“A neighbour contacted social services and Dad was told to sort it out or they’d take us away. None of my dad’s brothers or sisters wanted me or my brother because we were little shits. We were always in trouble. Robbing shops. All kinds of stuff. So we went into care.”
For the rest of his childhood, Stephen was in and out of care homes. The only emotions he remembers feeling, even then, are fear, anger and confusion. “Christmas, birthdays, people out of the blue at care homes being nice to me… I never really got used to it. I always felt uncomfortable. There’s just a mess of feelings inside me that I don’t interpret properly, or respond to properly.”
Alexithymia is often associated with trauma and neglect from a young age, explains Geoff Bird. Twin studies have suggested a genetic component, too. And it’s also linked to certain types of brain damage, particularly to the insula, the region that receives interoceptive signals.
As Rebecca Brewer notes, the kind of anxiety that Stephen experiences is common in people with poor interoception. At the University of Sussex, Hugo Critchley and Sarah Garfinkel, who have expertise in psychiatry and neuroscience, are looking at ways to alter interoception, to bring anxiety down.
Garfinkel has put forward a three-dimensional model of interoception that has been well received by others in the field. First, objective accuracy at perceiving interoceptive signals – how good you are at counting heartbeats, for example.
Second, subjective report – how good you think you are. And third, metacognitive accuracy – how good you are at knowing how good you actually are.
The third dimension is important because various studies have found that the gap between how good someone thinks they are at counting heartbeats, for example, and how good they actually are predicts their levels of anxiety.
Lisa Quadt, a research fellow with the Sussex group, is now running a clinical trial with the aim of testing whether reducing this gap for people with autism can reduce their anxiety.
In a pilot study, Critchley, Garfinkel and MSc student Abigail McLanachan recruited a group of students who came into the lab for six training sessions. In each session, they first did the heartbeat-counting task.
The volunteer sat at rest, with a loose rubber pulse oximeter on their forefingers, and reported how many beats they’d counted. Then McLanachan told them how they’d done so that they got a better sense of how accurate they were.
McLanachan then got them to do a few minutes of jumping jacks or walking fast up the steep hill outside the building – whatever was necessary to raise their heart rate, to make it easier to detect. (“Because some people really can’t feel their heartbeat at all. I can’t,” Quadt explains.)
Then they went back into the lab, did the tasks again and, as before, were given feedback each time.
This was just a pilot study on a general student population. But after three weeks, not only had the students’ accuracy improved on all three dimensions of interoception, but they also reported reductions in anxiety of around 10 per cent.
For the main trial, volunteers diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder will complete the same tasks as in the pilot, but once at the start and once at the end they’ll do them inside an MRI scanner.
This will allow the team to monitor activity in the insula, which receives heart-rate data, and look at how changes in that activity may correspond to connections between the amygdala, which detects threats, and the prefrontal cortex, which can work out whether a potential threat really is or is not dangerous and so whether anxiety is warranted.
The hope, Critchley explains, is to see improved connectivity between these two regions, which previous studies have linked to reduced anxiety.
In Oxford, meanwhile, Geoff Bird wants to look at the idea that there are two different types of alexithymia. People with one type don’t produce enough of the bodily signals necessary for the experience of an emotion, so would be unlikely to benefit from the Sussex group’s kind of training.
People with the other type produce all kinds of bodily sensations but their brains don’t process these signals in the typical way. This second group, which includes Stephen, might benefit more.
Bird stresses that, although people with alexithymia struggle to understand emotion, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about other people. “For the most part, individuals with alexithymia can recognise that others are in a negative state, and this makes them distressed.
“The problem is that they can’t work out what the other person is feeling, and what they are feeling, and therefore how to make the other person feel better or how to reduce their own distress. I think that’s important because alexithymia is different from psychopathy in that respect.”
Stephen says that for him, this is certainly true. And in theory, an emotional training technique is something he would welcome. “I’ve got several books about emotions and feelings and they don’t make a jot of difference because they’re not talking specifically enough about what you actually feel within your body is which emotion.”
For now, given the absence of available treatments for alexithymia, Stephen plans to use his newfound understanding of himself, gained through therapy, to try to move forwards. At first, he says, he hoped that therapy would fix everything.
“I thought every day would be perfect, brilliant… and I’ve come to realise that’s not going to happen. I’m always going to have problems, always going to have issues.”
He’s learned valuable lessons, he says. Though he and his wife are still separated, they talk regularly and now he tries not to reject her views on his anxiety. “Rather than go, ‘No,’ I will listen. I think, ‘Well, you know what emotions are about and I don’t, so I’m going to listen to you and I’ll either take it on board or I’ll find a way to deal with it’.”
He’s also thinking about moving to work with people who are struggling with substance abuse, because he’d like to be back in a career where he can help people.
Most of all, he’s determined to use his diagnosis of alexithymia. “For me, it empowers me – now I know about it, I can read about it. I can find out more about it. And I can develop certain tools that enable me to combat it.”
People without alexithymia could probably use such tools as well. Bird has led work showing that people who are more aware of their own heartbeat are better able to recognise others’ emotions, a crucial first step in being empathetic.
He’s planning studies to investigate whether heartbeat training might therefore increase empathy.
Those who want to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety in daily life, but who either can’t or don’t want to change the sources of stress, could focus on changing the signals coming from their bodies instead.
Regular physical exercise should dampen down the kinds of bodily signals (from the heart and circulation, for example) that the brain could interpret as being anxious – so it should dampen down feelings of anxiety, too.
Knowing that signals from our bodies underpin our emotions could be empowering for all of us. Now, how does that make you feel?
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MAY 20th will mark the end of “mental-health awareness week”, a campaign run by the Mental Health Foundation, a British charity. Roughly a quarter of British adults have been diagnosed at some point with a psychiatric disorder, costing the economy an estimated 4.5% of GDP per year. Such illnesses have many causes, but a growing body of research demonstrates that in young people they are linked with heavy consumption of social media.
According to a survey in 2017 by the Royal Society for Public Health, Britons aged 14-24 believe that Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter have detrimental effects on their wellbeing. On average, they reported that these social networks gave them extra scope for self-expression and community-building.
But they also said that the platforms exacerbated anxiety and depression, deprived them of sleep, exposed them to bullying and created worries about their body image and “FOMO” (“fear of missing out”). Academic studies have found that these problems tend to be particularly severe among frequent users.
Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, has admitted that the product works by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”. Indeed, an experiment by five neuroscientists in 2014 concluded that Facebook triggers the same impulsive part of the brain as gambling and substance abuse.
Yet it is difficult to prove that obsessing over likes and comments causes mental illness, rather than the other way around. The most convincing effort was a survey that tracked a group of 5,208 Americans between 2013 and 2015. It found that an increase in Facebook activity was associated with a future decrease in reported mental health.
An obvious solution to the problem is to cut down on screen time. Even the most obsessive users should be able to do so. The neuroscientific study on Facebook found that the subjects’ cognitive ability to inhibit their impulsive behaviour was less impaired than for drug or gambling addicts. And data from Moment, an activity-tracking app, show that it is possible for light social-media consumers to be content.
Each week it asks its 1m users whether they are happy or sad with the amount of time they have spent on various platforms. Nearly 63% of Instagram users report being miserable, a higher share than for any other social network. They spend an average of nearly an hour per day on the app. The 37% who are happy spend on average just over half as long.
The happiness rate is much higher for FaceTime (91%), a video-calling app, and phone calls (84%). When it comes to social networking, actual conversations are hard to beat.
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Stress negatively impacts businesses each day. Overworked, overwhelmed employees often feel as though they’re running in circles, never quite getting anything accomplished. Over time, this feeling can lead to burnout, severe job dissatisfaction, and susceptibility to a number of diseases and illnesses.
The positive effects of meditation have been well documented over the years, but time-challenged professionals hardly have time to go to yoga every day. Luckily, you don’t have to take a regular class to put valuable meditation techniques into use in your everyday life. Here are some meditation practices you can bring into your daily stressful situations:
One of the most useful aspects of yoga for your daily life is mindful awareness. In a meditation session, this involves merely clearing your mind and focusing on the present moment. By centering yourself and thinking only about your breathing and posture, you can move yourself away from the stresses of the day and truly be in the moment.
There are tricks you can employ in your daily life, too, without closing your eyes and sitting still. Try using observation to appreciate the environment around you—as you wash your hands, focus on the feeling of the water as it hits your skin, or as you open a door, truly feel the doorknob. You can also focus on one object to the exclusion of all else to relax your mind, like a leaf blowing on a tree outside your office window or a dust particle floating through the air—anything that provides an appreciation for natural objects.
Raj Jana, the founder of JavaPresse Coffee Company, created a meditative practice through something as simple as grinding his morning coffee. “In this period of mandatory downtime,” Jana explains, “my hands are too busy to text, and I’m too occupied to think.” All of his energy and focus is devoted to grinding the coffee, from noticing how his hands are moving to taking in the aroma of the beans.
Mantras are often associated with the word “om” and are used in many meditation sessions to refocus the mind. But your mantra can be any word you choose. Popular modern mantras include Norman Vincent Peale’s “I change my thoughts, I change my world” and Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Choose a saying that reminds you of your own goals and dreams and use that mantra to quiet your mind and center your thoughts.
When you find yourself feeling overly stressed, find a quiet place where you can clear your mind and relax. In time, you’ll likely find that you can use that mantra in any stressful situation to calm yourself. Your colleagues will respect your ability to remain cool under pressure and react to every situation professionally.
There’s a reason breathing is so closely connected to yoga and meditation. When you take deep breaths, it actually tricks the body into reversing the physiological effects of burnout, such as rapid heartbeat, tense muscles and dilated pupils. Deep breaths slow your heart rate, improve oxygen delivery and lower your blood pressure, effectively reducing the health problems that can result from too much stress.
For best results, practice breathing exercises when you’re alone. When a stressful situation arises, you’ll then be well versed in the art and able to put it to use to calm your mind, even if you’re in a business meeting or facing a hostile co-worker in your office. You can choose from several different types of breathing exercises to find the one that works best for you, including abdominal breathing, progressive relaxation and guided visualization using an online meditation audio tool.
Abdominal breathing—also called diaphragmatic breathing—is all about taking deep breaths, rather than the shallow ones we’re used to, to get oxygen into your body. The goal is to inhale slowly through your nose until your stomach pushes out and then exhale for an equal amount of time. This reduces stress and helps with digestion.
Progressive relaxation is a similar method of pushing your muscles to an extreme and then relaxing them. In progressive muscle relaxation, you tense your muscles up in sections, such as focusing on your neck and shoulders. You then let the tension go and absorb the relaxation through your muscles and body.
Guided visualization focuses on heightening your senses to achieve relaxation. The guidance may ask you to picture a peaceful nature scene, like a waterfall, or a healing light bursting throughout your body. One good tool for guided visualization is the Stop, Breathe & Think app, which offers guided meditations for specific needs, such as sleep or anxiety.
When used correctly, meditation is a great way to battle the many stresses professionals face every day. By practicing these exercises when not in a stressful situation, you can prepare yourself to use them when others are around.
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Some folks are able to watch the latest racist incident or school shooting unfold on the news late at night, roll over and go right to sleep. Yet, plenty of others can’t watch the news past dinnertime, for the pain and agony they witness seeps too deeply into their skin and all hope for sleep is lost.
The cause for taking the suffering of others so personally? The blessing and curse of empathy. According to Dictionary.com, “empathy” is described as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.”
Roman Krznaric, author of “Empathy: Why it Matters and How to Get It,” describes the difference between empathy and sympathy: “Sympathy is feeling pity or sorry for someone, but without that extra step of grasping what that person is going through, or how they are experiencing the world,” he says.
The gift of feeling empathy, or being an empath, is that you care deeply for others and want to help, says Orloff. However, the downside of empathy is it can be mighty exhausting. “Empaths have an extremely sensitive, hyperreactive neurological system,” she explains. “We don’t have the same filters that other people do to block out stimulation. As a consequence, we absorb into our own bodies both the positive and stressful energies around us.”
Is empathy a skill or an ability you’re born with?
Orloff says the ability to feel empathy is a little bit psychological tendency and a little bit neurological wiring. “It’s hypothesized that empaths may have hyperactive mirror neuron systems (the compassion neurons in the brain) and they work on overdrive feeling compassion,” she says.
According to Krznaric, your capacity for empathy is likely a question of nature and nurture. “Research suggests that about 50 percent of our empathic capacities are genetically inherited and the rest we can learn, because empathy is not simply a matter of wiring,” he explains, adding that adversity can also lend itself to the development of an empathetic nature.
“I recently met a stand-up comic who has lived with cerebral palsy all her life. She has an amazing empathy with people who not only have physical disabilities, but who get marginalized by society in other ways,” he says.
Orloff also mentioned how adversity contributes to an empathetic nature: “A portion of empaths I’ve treated have experienced early trauma such as emotional or physical abuse, or they were raised by alcoholic, depressed or narcissistic parents, potentially wearing down the usual healthy defenses that a child with nurturing parents develops.”
Empathy can be a struggle in this society
David Sauvage, an empath performance artist who consults with corporations and entrepreneurs on building more empathetic cultures, says the basis of empathy is emotional self-awareness — which isn’t a skill fostered by today’s achievement-driven culture.
“The average person in our culture doesn’t have much empathy toward others because we prioritize everything other than emotional well-being,” he explains. “How often are boys told to ‘suck it up?’ How often are girls told they’re ‘acting crazy?’
How many times during the course of the day do we feel like we shouldn’t feel a certain way, so we hide our sadness only to feel shame around that sadness? There’s no healthy balance between the negation of people’s feelings and the acceptance of people’s feelings. The only way to cope is to disassociate,” explains Sauvage.
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