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."



Flipping the Switch

"For Marie, this was a familiar drill, one she could trace to her years of being abused as a kid, and to her years in foster care, bouncing from home to home and school to school. Shut down. Hold it in. Act like nothing bad had happened, like nothing ever affected her. Because she craved normalcy, she would bury the hurt." ~An Unbelievable Story

Emotional Equations

"Our emotions preceded our ability to put them into words. The emotional center of the human brain, the medulla oblongata, formed before the thinking part of the brain, the neocortex. Scientists from Charles Darwin to Paul Ekman to Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall have found common emotions in all animals, including human beings. And the pioneering work of scientists such as Antonio Damasio, Candace Pert, Joseph LeDoux, and others have that our thinking and feelings are part of a complext mind-body ecosystem."

~Chip Conley, Emotional Equations


Facebook and Feelings

No doubt you've seen it by now. Facebook wants to know how you feel. Thumbnail_fbfeelings

So what does the creator of gottaFeeling think about this?

Well, to start, some of the listed “emotions” are not actually emotions. For example, “tired” is technically not an emotion –it’s a thought. I know – a little too nuanced perhaps for people to grasp.

Still, they’re going to find what I found, most people will only share emotions that are considered “positive” on Facebook. I did a survey of many of my gottaFeeling users and received the following comment – “Facebook is only for sharing positive things” from multiple users (you can share your emotion via Facebook on the gottaFeeling app).

I’m curious how long the effort will last. I personally think it’s an effort to forge intimacy (the area around which Facebook is most criticized), but I don’t have high hopes for its success. What do you think?


Anger has many forms, the most insidious of which is resentment. Resentment is like the plant fungus you never discover you have until you start looking at the underside of leaves. It starts innocently enough. You bite your tongue when someone is rude. You agree to another person's plan because you don't have a better one. Little by little, your glossed over feelings begin to accumulate. You might even be aware that they are piling up, but you convince yourself your feelings don't matter or you worry about the consequences of sharing your feelings.

Your feelings do matter and at the end of the day, if you don't express them you are the one who suffers.


It bothers me when people use the word mood for emotions or feelings. Mainly because growing up I was accused of being "moody." From that experience I came to believe that calling someone "moody" was failing to validate that the person has feelings. So moods, feelings, emotions - what's the difference? Basically feelings and emotions are thought to be interchangeable and the scientific term for them is "affect." Moods are basically emotions, but emotions are thought to have a clear focus while moods are thought to be more unfocused and diffuse. While emotions are instantaneous reactions, moods are emotions jumbled up with thoughts that affect outlook.