Thrive on Campus//

How Neuroscience and Ancient Buddhist Teachings Can Help Us Avoid Burnout

A better way of doing empathy.

Vietnam nurses, photo by Bill Cecil
Vietnam nurses, photo by Bill Cecil

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Like most women, I was socialized to be empathic.  When others are sad, I notice it immediately, it upsets me, and I try to help.  And of course, helping is good.   But it’s also exhausting and I know very well that it’s putting me on the path to burnout.  And I’m not alone.  Some researchers believe that our higher empathy explains why women are more prone to anxiety and depression.

So it looks like we have to choose: Care less or burn out.

Both options suck.

A combination of neuroscience and ancient Buddhist teachings points to a promising solution: Find a less exhausting way of caring.  The key insight is that empathy has three distinct parts:

  1. Noticing and understanding how others feel (‘cognitive empathy’)
  2. Feeling what they feel (‘emotional empathy’)
  3. Being motivated to help.

We need to understand that others are suffering (1), and we need to help when we can (3).  But do we need to feel other people’s pain?  After all, that’s often the most exhausting part.

I used to be proud of having high emotional empathy and worked on cultivating it even more.  I figured that this was necessary if I was going to help people effectively.  I now believe that this is a mistake. 

Of course, my own past experiences of suffering help me understand what others are going through.  It’s no accident that people going through a divorce often find it useful to talk to divorced people.  But I don’t need to feel their pain in order to be helpful.  In fact, it gets in the way because it hurts and exhausts me, distracting me from my friends’ problem.  (If you’ve ever told a friend about your suffering and then spent the next 20 minutes calming her down, you know what I mean.)

Buddhist monks have known about these downsides of emotional empathy for millennia, so they don’t generally practice feeling other people’s pain more acutely.  Instead, they aim to develop greater compassion.

Isn’t that the same thing?  As it turns out, no.

Neuroscientists have studied compassion and emotional empathy, and the difference is startling.  Feeling the other people’s pain is exhausting and stressful whereas compassion makes people feel warm and positive.  And this isn’t just about subjective experience.  MRI scans show that the two involve different parts of the brain.

I love how Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who participated in some of these studies, describes his experience of emotional empathy and compassion in the MRI scanner:

I visualized the suffering of these orphaned children as vividly as possible. The empathic sharing of their pain very quickly became intolerable to me and I felt emotionally exhausted, very similar to being burnout. After nearly an hour of empathic response, I was given the choice to engage in compassion or to finish scanning. Without the slightest hesitation, I agreed to continue scanning with compassion meditation, because I felt so drained to empathic resonance. Subsequently, engaging in compassion meditation completely altered my mental landscape. Although the images of suffering children were still as vivid as before, they no longer induced stress.  Instead, I felt natural and boundless love for these children and the courage to approach and console them. In addition, the distance between the children and myself had completely disappeared. This was when we realized the immense potential of compassion as an antidote to empathic distress and burnout.

Matthieu Ricard

This offers us a way forward: Continue to notice when others are suffering and to look for ways to help them.  But stop treating emotional empathy as something desirable and instead regard it as distracting and unhelpful.  Treat it in the same way that you might treat other troubling emotions:

Pay attention, notice when it comes up, label it, and let it go.

Meditation focusing directly on developing compassion might be even more effective in helping us prevent burnout: In early studies, Buddhist metta meditation strengthened positive emotions and decreased negative ones, and it worked both for beginners and for experts.

Of course, all this is easier said than done.  Things so often are.  Realizing that emotional empathy hurts you doesn’t make it go away.  Learning to handle it better is a lifetime practice.  But we begin that practice by noticing what we need to do differently.

The fine print

I’m mainly drawing on Paul Bloom’s Against empathy (great book!) which he summarizes hereThe researchers speaking about women and empathy are Vicki Helgeson and Heidi Fritz (page 135).

The research about compassion and empathy and about compassion training was done by neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, and they describe it themselves in Compassion: Bridging Practice and scienceThe Ricard quote is from this book.

A 7-minute guided metta meditation from Sharon Salzberg who is one of the most famous metta meditation teachers in the United States here.

Metta means loving-kindness (wishing that others be happy) and Buddhist philosophers distinguish it from compassion (wishing others be free from suffering).  I’m treating them as the same thing in here.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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