Fight Stress with Empathy

“Oh, it’s nothing, I am just stressed out.” Does this mean that there nothing to worry about? This answer is what we usually get from aour close friends and family after bothering them with a list of questions:  “What’s wrong?”, “What’s the matter?”, “Are you OK?”, and so on.

Apparently (and unfortunately) the most people are not acknowledged of the adverse effects of stress in their lives. We should be much more concerned about the stress level than we are.

Psychologist Arthur Ciaramicoli debates that empathic listening could be the key to reducing stress in our lives.

For this purpose The Center for Disease Control conducted a survey and according to the results 66 percent of the American workers stated they could not sleep i.e. lie awake troubled by physical or emotional effects of stress. Stress has been associated to many health problems, including the most common ones i.e. obesity and cardiovascular diseases—especially among low-income Americans. Stress not only affects us, but unfortunately it can affect people around us, as well, especially our children.

Variables That Determine How Stress Affects Us

You might be surprised, but not all stress is bad. It can also be stimulating or lead us to care about the welfare of others, if channeled in the right way. Nor we can always avoid it. Sometimes the stressors are beyond our personal control.

However, psychologists have identified four key variables that determine whether stress eventually affects us in a positive or negative way:

  • Our perception of stress
  • The meaning we attach to it
  • Our ability to cope with uncertainty and ambiguity
  • The degree of control we have over the circumstances that produce the stress

 “Awareness is the first step in rewriting old stories” writes clinical psychologist Dr. Arthur Ciaramicoli.

“In my experience’ – says Dr. Arthur Ciaramicoli “many people don’t recognize the role that their own perceptions, fueled by biases, play in exacerbating stress. By becoming more aware of our biases in perception, we can learn to focus on the truthful assessment of situations we encounter without distorting reality, thereby remaining calm, energetic, creative, and resilient when faced with highly stressful situations.”

“We work too much, sleep too little, love with half a heart, and wonder why we are unhappy and unhealthy.”

In his book “The Stress Solution”, he provides readers with simple, realistic, powerful techniques for using empathy and cognitive behavioral therapy to perceive situations accurately, correct distorted thinking, and trigger our own neurochemistry to produce calm, focused energy.

“As a psychologist, I’ve worked with countless people who suffer from debilitating stress in their lives, often without recognizing how it impacts their health, relationships, and work lives. In my book, The Stress Solution, I provide an outline of the research-based steps I often give to my clients so that they can learn to manage stress in more positive ways.”

One way that can help us reduce stress is by taking good care of ourselves and make sure we are getting proper sleep, exercise, and change our dieting i.e. eat more healthy food. “Self-care is never selfish, but it may feel that way when you live a frenzied life” – he says. Also we should work towards finding meaning or purpose in our work or other activities, and toward nurturing our positive relationships using empathy. Empathy will for sure help those around us to be more supportive and reduce the likelihood of interpersonal conflicts.

Why use empathy?

Because by giving and receiving empathy we actually produce the near magical neurotransmitter oxytocin, which creates a sense of trust and cooperation—keys to negotiating and resolving conflict (between couples, communities, states, or countries). Leading with empathy can help those around us to be sources of support in our lives and reduce the likelihood of interpersonal conflicts.

It could be a little bit difficult to feel empathic when we are angry or tired. Here’s a good example – a couple that reunites after a long day of work. If they do not first connect through empathy and love, they may end up fighting over whose turn it is to do the dishes or simply withdrawing from each other.

Empathic Listening

Instead of falling on our usual patterns, practice empathic listening with one another. Ok- one would say, but what does empathic listening look like?

Emphatic listening requires giving up a self-centered view of the world, focusing and paying attention; putting away prejudices or distorted thinking in order to connect with another people’s emotions. Having a true desire for connection and understanding for other people, rather than winning is what you need for a successful communication. That’s why it’s an interaction and not a battle.

Almost all of us listen to each other with half an ear, preoccupied with our own worries and not fully present in the ongoing conversation. We tend to listen with prejudice and partially, making up our minds or even judging before we hear the full story and not even considering the other person’s perspective. Eventually we do make well-meaning comments such as, “I know what you’re going through”, “I know what you mean…..” but they certainly do not match the uniqueness of the other’s person’s thoughts or feelings. Oh, and our inner voices have the power of distracting us and keep us from active listening. That is how and why we run the risk of losing connection and making false assumptions.

Empathy (understanding, identification – you name it) is easier when we realize who we are and understand our inner stories, so we learn to see how it clouds our reactions and judgments. Simply to understand – If a person has been humiliated in childhood or wasn’t paid attention by the surrounding, he/she would find it really difficult to trust others or feel comfortable with intimacy. This is usually a background story of couples that fight a lot. Perhaps they feel unworthy because of their past that hurts. The result is – hard time for them to be present and more vulnerable to their partners.

Try to respond with empathic listening. It will help you to shift from your stories and distorted ways of thinking.

Increase Your Emphatic Listening Skills in 7 Steps

How to enhance your emphatic listening and ability to express empathy? These are some of my recommendations:

  • Reflect others people’s words to you – repeat or rephrase what someone has said. ‘Sounds like you had a tiring day today?’
  • Emphasize the feeling behind the words and pay attention to of your interpretation. ‘You sound exhausted. Is there something upsetting you at the office?’
  • Pay attention to body language. It’s really telling you more about the person than the actual words. ‘You look tense. What can I do to help?’
  • Ask open-ended questions that way you show interest in their perspective. ‘How was your day at the office?’ and not, ‘Why are you so late?’
  • Slow down. Take a deep breath in. Calm yourself if you feel you are being pressurized or pushed, or you are absorbing someone else’s tension. Slowing down can be helpful for truly tuning in to another person (and not being stumbled up by your own reactivity). Some people say that attentive meditation, self-compassion, or compassion training can help with this kind of emotional regulation.
  • Avoid instant judgments. Don’t judge and put the person down. Empathy is about seeing human beings as always changing and evolving. “When we give and receive empathy, transformation occurs.”
  • Learn from the past. If you often jump into conclusions and are unaware of your own prejudices, you will probably find it difficult to listen to another person and perceiving them accurately. “Acknowledge your personal preferences and use cognitive reframing—a technique that involves reconsidering your interpretations of events, something I describe in detail in my book. By engaging your brain in this way, you can rewire it to be less emotionally triggered and to calm your nervous system.”

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