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The Dark Side of Empathy

In training and lectures I often discuss how the brain processes information in two different ways. This includes the pre-frontal cortex region which, among other things, houses imagination, and the limbic system which processes emotion. I teach how anxiety and impulses driven by emotional responses to the world can be alleviated by through the use of imagining situations in the third person. This requires the pre-frontal brain to process the information which is incapable of producing emotion. This can 'cool' emotional responses and research demonstrates it reduces the release of stress hormones such as cortisol.

This also applies to practitioners. Research has identified two types of empathy. One 'imagined' empathy and the other a 'felt' empathy for others. These two different types of empathy have a different impact on the brain. The 'felt' form of empathy was capable of inducing similar stress responses in the listener as the person they were listening too. Conversely, imaginative empathy did not produce the same response. This research could have important implication for practitioners own well being, particularity burn out. For more information click here.

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