Depression and lack of empathy(+Understanding the relation)

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This article will explain that being depressed tends to have an impact on a person’s ability to feel empathy over time. It will also discuss what empathy is, what are its types, what can be done to avoid people with depression from losing their ability to feel empathy.

Aside from that, the article will show how to train your empathy,  what depression is, how to treat and cope with it.

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Do people with depression lose empathy?

Yes, dealing with depression can have a great impact on how a person feels empathy. It is shown that when a person gets depressed they tend to have a decrease in that ability. But to discuss that, let’s answer a few questions first.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the human ability to understand what other people might be feeling. It is what allows us to put ourselves in other people’s places and try to understand why they do, say, or feel things.

Empathy is something that needs to be practiced because although it might be easy for a person to understand why they are doing what they do, to other people it might not be so clear, so to put yourself in a position to understand the other, one might need to let go of preconceived notions and look with affection to what they don’t understand.

Empathetic people tend to be good listeners and have a good perception of how people are feeling. It can also be that they like to help others, but it might also be hard to set boundaries and you can feel drained or overwhelmed by social situations.

Empathy is of extreme importance because it is through it that we open ourselves to establish a connection with another person. It is what will help us hear what the other person is saying and respond to it, aside from that it is what creates in us the urge to help others.

There are three types of empathy.

  • Affective empathy

This is the ability to understand other people’s feelings and answer accordingly. This is the type of empathy that makes a person worry about the other and potentially feel drained by it.

  • Somatic empathy

It involves the physical reaction to empathy. It is what happens when someone is going through an embarrassing situation and you feel embarrassed as well.

  • Cognitive empathy

It is the ability to understand the mental state of another person and what they are thinking. 

What is depression?

Depression is a mental illness that affects around 5% of the world’s population. Its main characteristic is the intense sense of sadness the person experiences. But not only that, people with depression tend to have a negative view of life, with less purpose and hope for the future.

Along with that, they tend to have a diminished sense of self-worth along with low self-esteem. People of all ages and gender can develop depression, but women tend to have more chances to develop depression than men.

Other factors can lead a person to have a higher risk of developing depression. If a person has a family history of depression, they tend to develop it easier, aside from that, experiencing trauma may be something that leads to depression, as well as imbalance in the chemicals of the brain.

For a person to be diagnosed with depression, they have to have its symptoms intensely for at least two weeks. Although people might experience different symptoms of depression, the most common ones are:

  • Change in eating pattern
  • Change in sleeping pattern
  • Loss of energy
  • Irritability
  • Feeling of guilt
  • Excessive crying or being unable to cry even if they want to
  • Lack of ability to focus
  • Thinking of death and suicidal thoughts

So what is the relationship between depression and losing the ability to empathize?

Research has shown that depressive people tend to show less cognitive and affective empathy, this is thought to be either a self-preservation manner of not getting in contact with too much suffering when one is already depressed.

Decreased ability to feel empathy could be based on a more egocentric worldview, being that a person with depression tends to feel more isolated, less able to relate to others, which can affect how empathetic they can be.

This might be explained by the fact that a person, when depressed, tends to be disconnected from their feelings, and since they are disconnected from themselves, it might be harder to put them in other people’s shoes.

Another research that corroborates with that theory analyzed how depressive parents would deal with empathy towards their children showed that they had less ability to show cognitive and affective empathy. Aside from showing how depressive mother tends to be more focused on themselves.

Frequently Asked Question (FAQ): Do people with depression lose empathy?

What can cause someone to lose their empathy suddenly?

A person may lose their ability to feel empathy all of a sudden because they might develop empathy fatigue. That is, the person has a distress reaction from feeling overly empathic for some time, and at some point, it might become too much. There are some symptoms of empathy fatigue, they can be:

  • Isolation from others
  • Feeling numb
  • Decreased ability to care about what is going on around you
  • Being overwhelmed
  • Incapacity to relate to others
  • Getting angry or sad
  • Obsessively thinking about other people’s suffering
  • Constant feeling of guilt
  • Not being able to respond to situations
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Nausea and other stomach problems
  • Agitated sleep
  • Feeling constantly tired
  • Change in appetite pattern
  • Self-medicating or abusing drugs and alcohol

Nowadays, with the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become more common the empathy fatigue, through this time everyone has been exposed to so many sad stories, and people felt so intensely what was going on, that at some point people might reach their limit. 

This can easily be understood by health care workers, people that have been battling since day one, and can now have a sense of being overwhelmed by all that has happened.

To deal with empathy fatigue, we need to first recognize its existence. After that, it is important to find balance in our emotions, find a way where one can care for others without giving too much of themselves. 

And find a way to take care of themselves, people that tend to feel more empathic should have a support network, that can be therapy, for example, that will help them deal with their emotions.

What is emotional avoidance?

Emotional avoidance may be the result of being exposed to a traumatic experience. Many people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) tend to develop, as a reaction to it, emotional avoidance. It can be a way to keep away feelings that might make the person feel overwhelmed. Some behaviors are common to people with emotional avoidance. They are:

  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs and self-medicating
  • Avoiding places or people that might bring those emotions back, as well as avoiding talking about it
  • Difficulty remembering the traumatic event
  • Decreased interest in family and friends
  • Feeling dissociated and/or disconnected from people and places
  • Increased hopelessness about the future and what it may bring

Is it possible to improve empathy?

Yes, research has shown that empathy is partly made of innate factors and there is another aspect that is learned, which means it can be improved. One can improve their ability to feel empathy by challenging themselves. 

This is a good way to step out of your comfort zone. It can be a humbling experience that can help you relate better to people, the same can be said about traveling, seeing people that live differently, can be a great way to develop an appreciation for others.

Be in touch with things that touch you emotionally, it is an exercise to feed your heart and emotions, this will expand your ability to feel, in consequence, it can also make it easier to feel towards other people. So when you talk to them you can try to understand a little better about how they feel.

Think about how your pre-judgments may be impacting your ability to feel empathy. We all have them, but it is important to try to separate what is based on your judgment and what has to do with the view of the situation. Being a curious person and asking a lot of questions may give you a better understanding of what the other person is going through.

What is the opposite of being an empathic person?

The opposite of being an empathic person is likely to be someone with Narcissist Personality Disorder or a person that presents psychopathic behavior. Those people tend to be more focused on their well-being than others. They usually are goal-driven, and will always act on the best way to reach it.

They might act as if they are empathetic with a problem you might be sharing, but that is usually a way to get what they want from you. In it, a person that is not aware might think they are being understood, when in reality they are mostly being manipulated.

What does it mean to be an empath person?

An empath person is someone that deeply feels empathy, more intense than the average person. When a person is an empath, they usually are more sensible in recognizing other people’s emotions and relate to them more intensely.

Some signs show a person is an empath. One is that they might unconsciously mirror other people’s movements and emotions, this is a way to relate to the other person. They tend to also feel other people’s pain, and sometimes might even feel, to some degree, other people’s physical pain.

People that are empaths are better at recognizing other people’s emotions, they are also more open to trying new things, and are more likely to help people in need. Aside from that, they tend to be less likely to display aggression.

Conclusion

This article discussed that people with depression tend to become less empathetic. In it, it was explained what does it mean to be empathetic, what is depression and how can depression deprive people of such ability.

The article also enlightened ways to cope with depression, and what might help a person to practice being empathetic.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, feel free to write it in the space below.

References

Salo VC, Schunck SJ, Humpreys KL. Depressive symptoms in parents are associated with reduced empathy toward their young children. PLoS One. 2020; 15(3): e0230636.

Schreiter S, Pijnenborg GHM, aan het Rot M. Empathy in adults with clinical or subclinical depressive symptoms. J Affect Disord. 2013. August 15;150(1):1–16.

Wilbertz G, Brakemeier E-L, Zobel I, Härter M, Schramm E. Exploring preoperational features in chronic depression. J Affect Disord. 2010. August 1;124(3):262–9.

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