Anxiety is a common mental health condition that involves excessive worrying, nervousness, apprehension, and fear. It impacts how we think, feel, and behave. With anxiety often comes an increased focus on one’s own internal thoughts, feelings, and state of discomfort. This has led some to wonder: does anxiety make people less empathetic toward others?
Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It involves being able to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling based on their situation. Empathy allows us to connect with others and care about their wellbeing. It is an important part of social-emotional intelligence.
The relationship between anxiety and empathy is complex. In some cases, anxiety may reduce one’s capacity for empathy. However, many anxious individuals are highly empathetic. Research suggests anxiety could influence empathy in different ways depending on the type and severity of anxiety, as well as other individual factors.
How anxiety can reduce empathy
While anxiety doesn’t eliminate empathy altogether, there are some ways it can hamper empathetic responding:
With anxiety often comes an increased focus on one’s own internal state and distress. This self-focus makes it more difficult to tune into others’ perspectives and emotions. Attention is directed inward instead of outward toward others’ experiences.
Struggling to manage one’s own anxiety can reduce energy and bandwidth available to respond to others’ emotions with empathy. Attempting to empathize while also dealing with emotional overwhelm from anxiety may deplete cognitive resources.
Anxiety may motivate avoidance of emotional situations or conversations where empathy would be helpful. This avoids the discomfort of experiencing empathy while anxious.
Some anxious individuals have difficulty with social skills like reading emotional cues, which can make empathic understanding challenging. Social anxiety in particular can impede perspective-taking.
Reduced emotion perception
Studies suggest some anxious individuals have a bias towards perceiving less emotion on others’ faces. This could reflect reduced empathy, as picking up on others’ subtle emotions facilitates an empathetic response.
Threat-focused cognitive bias
Anxiety involves increased focus on sources of threat. This threat-vigilance makes it harder to tune into others’ emotions and adopt their perspective.
So in many cases, anxiety distracts from and disrupts the cognitive and emotional resources needed to feel empathy for others. But anxiety doesn’t eliminate empathy, which brings us to the next point…
How anxiety can increase empathy
Interestingly, anxiety doesn’t always dampen empathy. In some cases, it may even heighten it:
Shared emotional experience
If someone else is experiencing anxiety, an anxious individual may be able to empathize better due to having gone through similar emotions themselves.
Increased emotional sensitivity
Some research finds anxiety is linked to greater emotional sensitivity and intensity. This emotional sensitivity could support greater empathy as emotions are felt more strongly.
Coping through connection
Seeking interpersonal closeness is a common anxiety coping strategy. This motivation to connect could facilitate more empathetic engagement with others.
Hypervigilance to social cues
While anxiety narrows focus to threats, it can also increase vigilance regarding social and emotional cues from others. This attention to cues could aid empathy.
Anxiety is tied to emotions like guilt, shame and embarrassment. These self-conscious emotions motivate awareness of how one’s actions impact others, facilitating empathy.
Increased risk aversion
Anxiety involves heightened sensitivity to risk and harm avoidance. This could translate into greater care and concern for others’ wellbeing and emotions.
So anxiety seems able to both impair and amplify empathy depending on the context. Many anxious individuals have strong empathetic abilities, especially in situations related to shared emotional experiences.
How empathetic ability varies in anxiety disorders
Empathy levels can look different across various anxiety disorder diagnoses:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Overall, GAD seems associated with struggling to express empathy, likely due to self-focus and worry. However, those with GAD show empathy in response to others’ anxiety.
Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety involves significant empathy difficulties due to hyperfocus on one’s own perceived social failures. But social anxiety may also motivate kind, empathetic behavior to gain acceptance.
Panic attacks are intensely distressing and preoccupying, leaving limited cognitive resources left for empathy. But between panic episodes, empathy seems intact.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
Research finds OCD patients have enhanced empathy for others’ distress, potentially due to shared experience of obsessive thoughts. But empathy is impaired regarding non-OCD-related distress.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD involves empathy deficits, especially for positive emotions. But empathy seems heightened for others’ negative emotional experiences similar to one’s trauma.
So empathy impairment appears most prominent in generalized anxiety and social anxiety. But even in very distressed states like panic attacks, empathy may be maintained or amplified outside those episodes.
Individual factors that influence the anxiety-empathy link
Beyond the type of anxiety, several personal factors shape the anxiety-empathy relationship:
Severity of anxiety symptoms
More severe anxiety often brings greater disruption to empathetic capacities. Mild to moderate anxiety may heighten empathy for similar distress.
Co-occurring diagnoses like depression or low self-esteem have additive effects on reducing empathy along with anxiety.
Anxious attachment amplifies concerns about relationships and may thus increase empathetic motivation, while avoidant attachment reduces empathy.
Women tend to have higher empathy. Gender socialization encouraging emotional attunement in girls could protect against anxiety reducing empathy.
Cognitive empathy vs. emotional empathy
Anxiety may affect emotional empathy (feeling what others feel) more than cognitive empathy (understanding their perspective).
Maladaptive coping, like avoidance or isolation, can worsen anxiety’s impact on empathy. Adaptive coping skills may offset empathy reductions.
Anti-anxiety medication may free up cognitive resources and reduce self-focus, thereby increasing capacity for empathy.
So while anxiety often impedes empathy, individual factors can mitigate or amplify this effect substantially.
Tips for staying empathetic when anxious
If you struggle to maintain empathy during times of high anxiety, some helpful strategies include:
– Reflect on how you would want others to respond with empathy if you were distressed. Consider how you’d feel supported.
– Express care and concern through actions, like offering help, even if you can’t fully emotionally empathize. Act empathetic even if you can’t always feel it.
– Talk openly with trusted friends and family about your challenges feeling empathy when anxious. Ask for their support and patience.
– Practice mindfulness and grounding strategies to calm your anxiety and direct your focus outward.
– Remind yourself others’ emotions are not dependent on your empathetic responses. You can still comfort them without blaming yourself.
– If you notice your empathy declining, step back from emotional conversations until you feel more regulated.
– Challenge unhelpful thoughts like “my anxiety means I’m a bad and selfish friend.” Empathy varies – it doesn’t define your value.
– Consider therapy to learn coping skills for anxiety and emotional regulation challenges impacting empathy.
With the right supports and coping methods, it is possible to regain more empathetic capacity when anxiety symptoms feel overwhelming.
The connection between anxiety and empathy is nuanced. In many instances, anxiety detracts from empathetic responding due to increased self-focus and reduced cognitive resources. However, anxiety can also amplify empathy in some contexts, like sharing similar distressing experiences. Empathy impairment seems most prominent in generalized and social anxiety disorder. But individual factors like symptom severity, gender, coping style, and attachment style all impact the anxiety-empathy link as well. Overall, anxiety doesn’t eliminate empathy, though it can make empathetic engagement more challenging. Using therapeutic techniques and asking for support during periods of high anxiety may help restore empathy’s capacity to foster social connection.