THE BLOG

3 Ways to Boost Empathy (and Why)

02/01/2015 08:58 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015

By Jan Bruce

When you experience stress, your body focuses its resources to deal with the perceived threat at hand. Among other things, your muscles tense up. Your breathing speeds up.
Your heart contracts harder and faster.

And, it turns out, your emotional heart freaks out, too. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that researchers have found that a boost in stress hormones makes your empathy take a dive. You literally have less ability to empathize with someone else's pain, especially if that person's a stranger to you.

I get the evolutionary logic of this stress response. If there's an immediate threat, you need to make sure the basics are covered, and that includes loved ones being safe. But if your stress response goes on and on, unmanaged, the range of your empathy will shrink. It may be harder to meet and connect to new people, those outside your known circles. You'll be less able you'll be to make and strengthen connections. And then you'll be more susceptible to negative stress. That empathy? Even smaller. It's a vicious shrinking circle.

The good news in the study was that upping empathy isn't rocket science: A brief interaction was enough for participants to empathize with "strangers" as if they were friends. In fact, all it took was 15 minutes of playing the video game Rock Band together.

Cultivating empathy and connection is a non-negotiable of stress management. People who are more connected in life report greater life satisfaction and show much greater resilience, meaning that they bounce back from adversity more quickly and easily. (More on the building blocks of resilience.) Here are three ways to boost your empathy, connection, and resilience -- and lower the impact of negative stress.

Try the Five-Minute Favor
The Five-Minute Favor, a term coined by Adam Rifkin, co-founder of PandaWhale, is about as simple as the name itself. The only rule is that it must be something you do to benefit another, with no direct personal gain/quid pro quo attached. On of my favorite "favors" is making connections for other people because in a sliver of time you can create some amazing opportunities

Whom do you know who would benefit from meeting someone else? Whether it's a colleague looking for the insight that a former colleague of yours likely has, or someone new to her field who would be thrilled to connect with a more seasoned pro in that same field, whom you happen to know. Think of one intro you can make today that could open up a world of possibility.

Offer your help
Women are notorious for trying to do it all themselves, and I see giving and receiving as a continuous loop. If you never ask for help, you'll be swamped and never in a position to help. But if you accept support, you're more likely to be able to give it. Also: Research shows that giving does amazing things to your brain and body.

A meQuilibrium colleague moved to a new city a few years ago and had a tough time making friends -- five years of a tough time. Things turned around for her when she volunteered to help organize a fundraiser for a local family in need. She didn't know the family well, but the experience of giving her time, effort, and attention was immensely rewarding and planted the seeds for new friendships that made her feel at home.

Become a loving listener
Listening is a powerful way to connect. When you listen, you affirm that the other person is worthy of your attention and respect. You gain more insight into this person, and you improve the quality of your relationships overall, which in turn provide you with much-need support when you're stressed or down. Whether it's a 10-minute exchange on the subway or a chat over coffee, careful listening transforms an ordinary conversation to one that fosters growth and higher self-esteem.

(Read more on how to become a superb listener.)

With small gestures, you can consciously widen the circle of your empathy and be stronger for the effort. Not only will be you more resilient, but your life may well be more filled with love.

Learn more useful information about stress and your health! Pre-order our forthcoming book, meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, co-authored by meQuilibrium CEO Jan Bruce, Adam Perlman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, and Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer.