How you handle stress might be affecting how empathetic you are.

It's OK; we know how you feel.

"I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it."

That's one of my favorite quotes from the late, great Maya Angelou in a 2013 New York Times interview. For all the differences between us, the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes is one of humanity's most fascinating, wonderful traits.

And it's a good thing, too. Empathy helps shape our sense of morality and plays a key role in how we interact with others.


"Teammate-person, I see that you've taken a blow to the head. I understand how you feel, and I am here for you!" — My guess at this conversation. Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images.

But a recent study suggests that our natural tendencies toward empathy can be hampered by something we all deal with: stress.

We all get stressed out. It's a very human thing to do. Trying to make deadline, stuck on hold with customer service, or even, gulp, headed to the DMV? These are all really stressful situations.

This is basically me when I'm stressed. GIF via "Clue."

And it turns out that when our bodies are in a state of stress, we're less likely — quite literally — to imagine ourselves in someone else's position.

For example, one test positioned the subject on one side of the table with a stranger on the other. From the subject's perspective, a book was placed on the right side of the table.

Here I am, trying to create a diagram. Bear with me.

First, the subject was asked what side of the table the book was on. The answer, obviously, was on the right.

Then, they were asked which side the book was on from the stranger's perspective. Those who were stressed were more likely to answer incorrectly or pause before responding.

The study just confirms what most of us already know.

Know that feeling where you're stressed out and suddenly everyone in the world is just being obnoxious? That moment where you stop being able to (or choose not to) understand where other people are coming from? I certainly do. That's our empathy taking a nosedive.

This is the face of one very stressed-out stock photo model. Image via Thinkstock.

Luckily, there are a few things we can do to help.

Here are three quick tips to beat stress (and restore your empathy)!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some excellent tips for helping you keep cool under pressure, and most of them come down to some basic self-care techniques.

1. Avoid drugs and alcohol.

This one might seem obvious. But as someone who has struggled with alcohol in the past, I totally get the appeal. The problem is that these are only temporary fixes and in the end, might leave you feeling even more stressed than before. If you're able to, try to cut back and see if that makes things any better.

2. Take care of your body.

Your physical health is so important. Are you eating well? Do you exercise? How's your sleep schedule? Do you have a set routine for the day, or do you just wing it? Pulling an all-nighter or skipping breakfast won't make life any easier. Try to set a routine, starting with the basics — like making a plan for what time you want to go to bed and wake up. Consider planning out your meals at the start of a week. Keep at it, and you might form a habit. You know, one of those good ones.

3. Don't isolate yourself.

Consider joining a book club, or maybe an intramural basketball league. These are long-term stress-reducers. And best of all, they help you get out of your own head for a bit.

Everyone has their own stress-busting solution, so if something works for you (and, you know, doesn't hurt anyone), run with it.

We've written about other approaches to keeping the stress monster at bay. We've covered a 191-year-old symphony that might just keep your blood pressure low, the benefits of owning cats, and the "scientific power of meditation."

The best part about all of this is there's sure to be something that works for you. Maybe you just haven't found it yet. Don't give up! You'll be a better person for it.

More
Courtesy of First Book

We take the ability to curl up with a good story for granted. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to books. For the 32 million American children growing up in low-income families, books are rare. In one low-income neighborhood in Washington, D.C., there is approximately one book for every 800 children. But children need books in their lives in order to do well in school and in life. Half of students from low-income backgrounds start first grade up to two years behind other students. If a child is a poor reader at the end of first grade, there's a 90% chance they're going to be a poor reader at the end of fourth grade.

In order to help close the literacy gap, First Book launched Give a Million, a Giving Tuesday campaign to put one million new, high-quality books in the hands of children. Since 1992, the nonprofit has distributed over 185 million books and educational resources, a value of more than $1.5 billion. Many educators lack the basic educational necessities in their classrooms, and First Book helps provide these basic needs items.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
True
first-book

I was 10 when my uncle Doug took his own life. I remember my mom getting the phone call and watching her slump down the kitchen wall, hand over her mouth. I remember her having to tell my dad to come home from work so she could tell him that his beloved baby brother had hung himself.

Doug had lived with us for a while. He was kind, gentle, and funny. He was only 24 when he died.

My uncle was so young—too young—but not as young as some who end their lives. Youth suicide in the U.S. is on the rise, and the numbers—and ages—are staggering.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Pavel Verbovski

Forrest doesn't mind admitting he needed a second chance. The 49-year-old had, at one point, been a member of the Army; he'd been married and had a support network. But he'd also run into a multitude of health and legal problems. He'd been incarcerated. And once he was released, he didn't know where he would go or what he would do. He'd never felt so alone.

But then, some hope. While working with Seattle's VA to obtain a place to live and a job, Forrest heard about Mercy Magnuson Place, a new development from Mercy Housing Northwest that would offer affordable homes to individuals and families who, like Forrest, needed help in the city's grueling rental market.

Forrest remembers not wanting to even go see the building because he didn't want to get his hopes up, but a counselor persuaded him. And when he learned that the development was a repurposed former military barracks — now a historic landmark — he knew he'd feel right at home.

Today, Forrest couldn't be happier. "I've got a 10-foot-high ceiling," he says. "I've got 7-foot windows. I look out onto a garden." His studio apartment, he says, has more space than he knows what to do with. For someone who's spent chunks of his life not having a place to call his own, the three closets that Forrest's apartment boasts are a grand luxury.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
True
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Having a baby is like entering a fight club. The first rule of having a kid is don't talk about having a kid. New moms end up with weird marks on their bodies, but they don't talk about how they got there or why. They just smile as they tell other women motherhood is such a joy.

There are so many other things we don't talk about when it comes to pregnancy. Hearing about the veritable war zone your body turns into is enough to snap anyone out of the highest of baby fevers, which is why so many women probably keep the truth to themselves. But it's important to talk about the changes because it normalizes them. Here are some of the ways your body changes that your health textbook isn't going to cover.

Keep Reading Show less
popular