We’re in the midst of it. A time we’re all too familiar with when temperature drops and consumption soars. A season colored by larger-than-average feasts, hideously festive sweaters, numerous social gatherings and occasional jetsetting. We might also receive an unwelcome guest in our homes and offices – stress.
In both home and work, the holiday season can stir up emotions of the highest category, bringing elevated stress for many. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, child and adolescent psychiatric hospitalizations peak during winter months, including the holiday season. The pressures and expectations imposed on us at this time can trigger anxiety and depression, and for those who already suffer from these conditions year-round, symptoms can worsen significantly. Generalized anxiety disorder affects about 6.8 million American adults, including twice as many women as men. Similarly, women are 70 % more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime (although male statistics may be underreported). To make matters worse, studies show that social stressors physically impair our brain’s ability to organize, analyze, plan, even consolidate our memories! Interestingly, the brain areas most affected by stress (hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex) are the same areas responsible for emotional regulation3. So it’s no surprise that acute stress can affect our abilities to deal with those very stressors. You can see how this can turn into a vicious cycle of stressful situations and difficulty coping, which ultimately affects our body and mind.
Oxytocin and Empathy
How are we able to escape falling victim to this cycle? The answer may lie in the ‘love’ hormone known as oxytocin, the nemesis of the stress hormone, cortisol. It is through the process of empathy that we boost our own levels of oxytocin, as well as in those with whom we interact. Reading a good book, using a nasal spray loaded with oxytocin, and extended compassion-based training have all been shown to enhance our abilities to empathize with others. In fact, even short-lived mindfulness can boost our empathic abilities. A recent study1 showed that following a brief mindfulness meditation, participants were better able to decode a person’s emotional state by reading their facial expressions, as well as show enhanced empathic concern when communicating with the excluded victim of a game. That is, they ‘felt more’ for the person being excluded and were better tuned to others’ emotions.
How mindfulness boosts empathy
In the absence of emotional regulation, we tend to use our thoughts to think about the stressful situation, say an argument with a relative, over and over. This then recreates negative feelings and makes us upset over and over again – a process called ‘rumination.’ Via the regulation of attention, mindfulness empowers us to cultivate a relationship with internal and external experiences in such as way that we are not avoiding or overly engaging in any given experience2. In a way, it allows us to experience and express our emotions in a more thoughtful manner. And the more mindfulness is practiced – and becomes second nature – the easier it will be to cope with stressful situations in a healthy and compassionate manner.
Stressed is desserts spelled backwards. So this holiday season, rather than reach for the nearest fruitcake when we get stressed, let’s try to reach inside of ourselves and observe our emotions. We may find that in doing so, we will find more space to empathize with others.
1. Tan, L. B., Lo, B. C., & Macrae, C. N. (2014). Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Mental State Attribution and Empathizing. PloS one, 9(10), e110510.
2. Compare, A., Zarbo, C., Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Marconi, C. (2014). Emotional Regulation and Depression: A Potential Mediator between Heart and Mind. Cardiovascular psychiatry and neurology.
3. Farb, N. A., Anderson, A. K., & Segal, Z. V. (2012). The mindful brain and emotion regulation in mood disorders. Canadian journal of psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, 57(2), 70.
Studies show that social stressors physically impair our brain’s ability to organize, analyze, plan, even consolidate our memories.