Empathy and its effects have been known about for a long time now, but recently a new and very large study has illustrated this in a fascinating way. The study, a collaboration between Thomas Jefferson University and some Italian researchers, looked at a huge sample of over 20,000 patients and 242 doctors . They used a validated scale to measure empathy, a scale designed especially for use in medical settings (Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE)) which assesses levels of understanding of a patient’s worries, pain, and suffering, as well as the extent of an intention to help. They found that significantly more patients with doctors who showed high empathy had lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, and indeed they had considerably fewer complications leading them to be hospitalized. There have been many smaller scale studies in recent years that have shown similar results. For example a study a few years ago found that, looking at patients with similar symptoms and backgrounds, those with more empathic doctors recovered from the common cold on average a day quicker, and had better immune responses .
Of course feeling thought about, held in mind and cared for has a range of powerful effects. After people are given an electric shock, the fear regions of their brains, are quieter when a spouse holds their hand . Another study of children undergoing cancer treatment looked at parental levels of distress and empathy. The children of parents who were distressed and overwhelmed by their children’s plight felt more pain than the children of parents who showed high levels of concerned empathy. Importantly the empathic parents also had higher levels of social support, and empathic people tend to have better interpersonal networks. Parents in more distress are more likely to invalidate the child’s experience or minimise it, and they in turn tend to have less support in their lives. Maybe they also had been less empathised with.
It seems that being empathised with makes most people calmer, more at ease and release hormones that makes us feel better, like oxytocin. Amazingly studies find that food even tastes better if we believe it is made or even chosen with loving care. We know that having higher oxytocin levels normally goes hand in hand with more empathy, trust and generosity, as well as better immune responses. It might even explain something of the extraordinary responsiveness humans have to touch. For example waitresses get more tips when they lightly touch a customer’s arm, and book borrowers are more likely to return their books earlier after having been lightly touched by librarians. When we feel good we release a host of hormones that can enhance health, and when we feel anxious, stressed and worried then an array of other less health enhancing hormones start swilling around our systems, the best known of which is the stress hormone, cortisol. We know that we heal less well when stressed. In a typical study two groups of university students were given slight wounds by their experimenters. Those given wounds in the holidays healed faster and better than those whose wounds were inflicted in stressful exam periods, who took on average 40% longer to heal . Similarly, patients experiencing more marital hostility heal less well after major medical procedures . Increased stress can lower immune systems, reducing the effectiveness of healing mechanisms.
Nearly all the longitudinal research similarly shows that having traumatic, abusive or neglectful backgrounds predicts all manner of physical and mental health problems as people get older . We maybe should also take note of this in a week when the press has reported studies which show that heart-attacks levels increase with stress at work. Stress, fear and anxiety have profound effects on our physical as well as mental health while empathy, feeling cared about have the opposite effect, and lots of research shows that and feeling that one belongs is a very good predictor of longevity and also of recovery from illness.
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