Stress, Empathy, and Anxiety

I'm a sensitive person. Thanks to a rough childhood, I tend to be hyper-aware of people and their emotional states. As you can imagine, this sometimes stresses me out. There are a few studies that hint at the interplay here:

Anxiety can reduce empathy (speaks to an anxious state)

Anxious people tend to be more empathetic (speaks to the anxious trait/personality)

Here's a great explanation of these seemingly contradictory studies by the good folks over at the Greater Good center.

To note:

"They found that stress-prone people were good at cognitive empathy—in other words, accurately identifying inner states based on outer clues. But there’s a critical caveat, for the purposes of our discussion: They weren’t as good at 'affective empathy.' That’s a science-y way of saying that they could recognize an emotion, but they weren’t necessarily feeling it themselves.

This makes perfect sense, in the context of the research to date. Stress mobilizes the body’s resources to survive an immediate threat. Among other effects, it helps narrow our attention and zero in on the threat. If you’re prone to be socially anxious, meeting strangers stresses you out.

That’s why anxious people can appear to be shy; they’re simply avoiding stressful stimuli, often going deep rather than wide in their social networks. Walking into a party or asking for help from people can take enormous courage. In those moments, their bodies are flooded by hormones that help them focus on threats—threats that are embodied in the faces of other people. This helps with cognitive empathy.

But I bet the reason why their affective empathy goes down is that they’re momentarily denying themselves access to their own inner states. Their attention sharpens and goes outward, which makes perception more accurate. But at the same time, they’re instinctively protecting themselves from getting caught up in the feelings they detect. This might help make socializing emotionally manageable. It might also make them seem cold or just a little stiff, in addition to shy."



Anxiously Go

Anxiety - some are born with it, some acquire it, or both. But whatever the cause, anxiety can be managed. Our instinct to protect, however, often gets in the way. This is especially true of parents. Parents can learn how to prevent anxiety in their children:

"Whatever the form that the anxiety takes, it's a combination of overestimating the risk of danger — whether that danger is in the form of embarrassment, a dog or a test — and underestimating one's ability to cope, says Lynne Siqueland, a clinical psychologist"

"...not to try to prevent anxiety, but instead promote their child's competence in handling it. If your child doesn't like to go play at friends' houses, they need to go play at more friends' houses, she says.

"That is kind of an 'aha' moment in the parent workshops," Siqueland says, "that kids who worry about these things need more practice, not less."


Even though I have to fast forward through the first 15 minutes of the self-serving rambling that he does at the top of every podcast and I'm always frustrated by how often he talks over his guests, I'm a fan of Marc Maron's podcast WTF. His latest with Dr. Drew was interesting and I thought called for some transcript treatment.

In it Maron talks about Narcissistic Residual Syndrome (a term he made up): "being brought up by narcissists and we have a sensitivity to it but we're cursed with the self-awareness to not be narcissists so  then the struggle becomes then who am I?"

From the interview:

Dr. Drew: It's delicate and it's submerged and it's not obvious.

Maron: But you know it reveals itself in me through co-dependent behavior.

Dr. Drew: Absolutely in me, too. 100% Because You end up.  your whole being becomes about managing them.  and they demand that

Maron: Right  and you had no choice early one

Dr. Drew: Right Well you didn't know and nobody gave you enough of what you needed to develop an autonomous self

Maron: But the narcissist thinks they're doing it right

Dr. Drew: Oh absolutely. They're doing it for you


Maron: So you had that, too?

Dr. Drew: Yeah

Maron: That's a scary thing because what I've realized about myself is you wander through the world with an incomplete self b/c no one drew the boundary

Dr. Drew: No one drew the boundary and then sat there and was present for you. Ever.  Because they didn't know how to

Maron: Because it's all about them. And they still don't.


Dr. Drew: I had severe workaholism for many many years. But I liked people and I could connect with people but I couldn't connect with people in a genuine way

Maron: Because there's a fear there. Right? The weird thing about me is if you let yourself be vulnerable because nobody placated this sensitivity your becomes very big

Dr. Drew: I really see this whole process as the search for the genuine and there was a lot of emptiness

Maron:  See that's what people don't realize about people that come from what we come from - when you come from narcissists your capacity for empathy has to be learned. And  it's kind of fucked up.

Dr. Drew: ..I think there's two sort of wiring in people. People who start in and go out towards others and people who start out and then go in.  To some extent we use both but co-dependents go out first. So we are exquisitely sensitive.


Maron: ...when you deal with erratic parents who need managing, you accommodate

Dr. Drew: And there's another layer to it, too

Maron: Oh boy

Dr. Drew: And this is the crazy part and this you can't really ever cure - you're going to be attracted to people who put you in that position.  And you just love them.  That's how you're wired.  It's your love map . So you gotta mitigate it and the way to mitigate is go ahead and go after the people you're not excited about but then you're sort of withholding something from yourself.

Maron: But then it's like a phantom limb

Dr. Drew: Or just go with people that are exciting but realize it's going to be dramatic and get in therapy

Maron: What I learned, what my therapist says, that's the way it's going to be and the most you can hope for is that they're willing to do the work.

Dr. Drew: ...I absolutely agree with that. Because that's life.  We're not perfect.


Dr. Drew: A lot of people do not understand this and it's where a lot of the craziness comes from.  The things that were traumatic in our childhood are the sources of attraction.


Dr. Drew: but here's the thing with powerlessness though ... you had trauma in childhood and the common experience of trauma in childhood is profound powerlessness and it's traumatizing to think about being powerless again...your brain puts it way off in the background and your thinking about it is "I've dealt with that" when in fact what's happened is you actually have a part of your emotional brain that's literally dis-wired, un-wired from the rest of your system. It's overwhelming but it's still there and it's embedded in your body now and it will continue to be a source of symptoms until you re-wire back into that piece and that only happens in an interpersonal context and if you don't trust other people you can never re-wire it.








Maria Bamford's Anxiety Song

Maria Bamford's Anxiety Song:

"This is my anxiety song: If I keep the kitchen floor clean, no one will die as long as I clench my fists at odd intervals, then the darkness within me won't force me to do anything inappropriately violent or sexual at dinner parties as long as I keep humming the tune, I won't 'turn gay'. Mmmm-hmmm-mmmm-mmm, mmmm-hmmm-mmmmm-mmm, mmmmmm--! They can't get you if you're singin' a song! Yeah!"

What If?

Worried? Anxious? Fearful? When this happens, stop, drop to a chair, and write out the following: 1. What is the worst that could happen?

Answer the question.

2. What could I do about it?

Answer the question.

This simple process will show you that there is always something you can do (even if that something is to simply stop worrying about it) and realizing that will show you that you have power in the situation and when you know that, your fear will go away.



Who's Afraid of Math?

You don't need to be. The first step is understanding the anxiety and fear that math can provoke. Recent research located the emotions math provokes using fMRIs. The researchers found that "the key to boosting students' math performance isn't through remedial teaching, but through providing students tools to cope with their fears." Or said another way, teaching students to strengthen their pre-frontal cortices.

How do you do that? Meditation is a great way to learn to manage your anxiety and fear.

How Bacteria Can Help With Anxiety

The bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus JB-1 helps ease anxiety or at least in lab tests made mice less afraid, more willing to take risks. The bacteria is one of many good types of bacteria we have in our stomachs or as they are better known today: pro-biotics. Finally, science is paying more attention to the mind/body connection!

For more see The Psychology of Yogurt.

Anticipatory Anxiety

Victor Frankl in his book Man's Search for Meaning talks eloquently about Anticipatory Anxiety: “It is characteristic of this fear that it produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid. An individual, for example, who is afraid of blushing when he enters a large room and faces many people will actually be more prone to blush under these circumstances. In this context, one might amend the saying, ‘The wish is father to the thought’ to ‘The fear is mother of the event.’ Ironically enough, in the same way that fear brings to pass what one is afraid of, likewise a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes.“

“Paradoxical intention” is based on the fact that “fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes. In this approach the phobic patient is invited to intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears.”

He shares a great anecdote, that I can really relate to, about how to fix the problem: “A young physician consulted me because of his fear of perspiring. Whenever he expected an out-break of perspiration, this anticipatory anxiety was enough to precipitate excessive sweating. In order to cut this circle formation I advised the patient, in the event that sweating should recur, to resolve deliberately to show people how much he could sweat. A week later he returned to report that whenever he met anyone who triggered his anticipatory anxiety, he said to himself, ‘I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!’ The result was that, after suffering from his phobia for four years, he was able, after a single session, to free himself permanently of it within one week.”

This simple change in thought has worked wonders for me. Give it a try.