A life of heightened pulses and overwhelming emotional stress affects much more than physical health, studies show. Recent research finds anxiety hinders emotional connections, specifically feelings of empathy. Experts from the department of psychology at the University of Iowa and other institutions were interested in how anxiety affects interpersonal relations.
Scientists looked at 1,300 subjects for their ability to retain perspective during incidents of anxiety. Compared to other emotions, such as anger, disgust, surprise or neutrality, anxiety conjured the most egocentrism during research exercises. Researchers hypothesize this spike in ego is due to “uncertainty appraisal tendencies” or the urge to prioritize self-preservation in the face of an unknown threat.
Building empathy in times of distress can prove challenging. Kira M. Newman of The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, recommends active listening for building empathy. Active listening is accomplished when people seek to understand before demanding acceptance, remaining uncritical of faults, supplying undivided attention to the other person and using silence when necessary to show him or her that he or she “has the floor.” The U.S. Department of State emphasizes that revelatory moments occur when the listener enables a pause rather than interrupting the conversation.
The concept of “shared identity” limits the boundaries between “in-groups” and “out-groups” by finding commonalities between two groups, even if it takes work to discover mutual needs and wants. David Rousseau, from the department of political science at the University at Albany, indicates “a shared sense of identity will decrease threat perception and increase international cooperation.” Results are likely due to a reduction in the fear of the unknown letting a person or group’s guard down, inviting human connections instead of defensive strategies.
Mindful breathing, often known as mindful meditation, involves slowing down and focusing on the present rather than fearing future stressors. Anxiety can be born from irrational or unlikely events and mindfulness works to eliminate those factors. Lower the anxiety, make it easier to connect with others.
Roman Krznaric, an empathy adviser to the United Nations and a former teacher of sociology and politics at Cambridge University, finds highly empathetic people seeking vulnerability in conversations with others.
“[Empathetic people] listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs, whether it is a friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer or a spouse who is upset at them for working late yet again,” says Krznaric.