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- This is an audio course, no need to watch, just listen. Welcome to the latest addition to LinkedIn learning, podcasts. We've curated some of the best business podcasts and made them even easier to listen to. Each episode is split into sections. Use the links in the contents area to skip to whichever section you like. We're always looking for new ways to help you learn and we'd appreciate your feedback, thanks for listening. (calm upbeat music) - Sounds True presents, The Science of Compassion, a modern approach for cultivating empathy, love and connection with Health Psychologist and Stanford University Lecturer Kelly McGonigal. Our program continues with session three, transforming empathic distress. (calm upbeat music) - We've spent the last two sessions talking about compassion as a response to suffering, but as you probably know well, compassion is not the only possible response to suffering. In my classes, I always ask students what are some other things that you feel when you're in the presence of someone else's suffering? And they say things like fear, guilt, anxiety, anger, stress, sadness, disgust, sometimes even pleasure, but perhaps the most common experience they report is one that actually is commonly confused for compassion but it's what I call empathic distress. In other words, you feel like you catch the other person's suffering and you experience it as your own. To give you a sense of what empathic distress is like, I wanted to share with you a story from one of my fellow compassion cultivation teachers at Stanford. Robert Cusick shared the story with me at a recent gathering of compassion teachers as an example of empathic distress. And I thought it was such a great story, I asked his permission to share it with you and I'm going to tell it to you, exactly the way he told it to me. "I'd signed up to volunteer at the Zen Hospice Center, "and it was my first day. "And there was a woman who was dying of esophageal cancer "and she had no relatives or family. "They asked a group of us to sit vigil with her, "so she wouldn't die alone. "I was the new volunteer, very green, so I said, yes "and I was assigned the shift from 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. "when no one else was around, "there was just one other medical staff who had to take care "of everyone in the Hospice Center. "When I arrived in her room, she was in such distress, "she was literally in the process of suffocating to death. "She couldn't lie down in bed, she had be held upright "to get her breath at all. "And so I sat on the edge of the bed, holding her up, "because she didn't have the strength to sit by herself. "And she was in a complete panic "because she couldn't catch her breath. "I caught that panic right away, I didn't know what to do. "So what I said to her was "Mirial, watch me breathe, "try to breathe with me, just watch me breathe." "She would do that and she could do it for one "to two breaths but then she'd lose her breath again. "We went through this three or four times, "each time she lost her breath, "she got more and more scared. "And each time the energy was ramping up. "At which point I said, one more time, "Watch me, watch me, it's going to be okay, try to breathe." "She opened her eyes and looked at me "with the most incredulous look "like I was the dumbest man on the planet. "And she said, "God damn it Robert, "it is not going to be okay, I am dying for Christ's sake." "She said it with enormous emotion like, "I don't have time for your bullshit. "I realized in that moment, I wasn't wishing "her pain to go away, I was wishing my pain would go away. "I was wishing the distress of that moment to be fixed. "I was no longer even empathically distressed, "I was just distressed. "I lost my connection with Mirial, "I lost my connection with myself, I got lost in my anxiety, "it was emotional contagion and I lost it. "In that moment she taught me what it really means "to be with someone who is suffering. "All I could do was hold her and be a presence for her, "let her know that I wouldn't leave her alone. "I sat with her for the rest of the night, holding the space "and not being afraid to be with things "as they actually are. "The moment I calmed down the energy in the room calmed down "and her own panic subsided." Now what Robert experienced was an extremely normal reaction to someone else's suffering. Emotion contagion is a natural human instinct and we experience contagious anger, we experience contagious laughter, we even experience contagious yawning but negative emotions related to threat, to pain, or to suffering, they seem to be especially contagious. For example, you might've seen this yourself, crying seems to be contagious in human infants and if you have one baby who's crying any baby who's around is likely to join in the crying too. Not because they're so consciously distressed that another infant is crying, but because it's simply contagious. We also know that when people see someone else having a panic attack, they start to show physical signs of having a panic attack themselves even if they don't what the other person is afraid of. We also know that when people see someone else in danger, at risk, people themselves have a kind of freezing response where their bodies freeze, they become paralyzed as if they themselves were the one who was in danger. And witnessing other people in pain, seems to activate the same regions of the brain as when you experience pain firsthand. Again, these are all natural reactions and instincts that help us understand what someone else is experiencing. And as we've seen, our capacity for compassion is in some way, rooted in our ability to catch other people's emotions through empathy, through knowing what they're experiencing. In fact, the very first moment of compassion, tends to be a stress response, a threat response, that includes an empathic mirroring of what someone else is suffering from. We have to understand what their experience is and we often do that by recreating it in our own brains and in our own bodies. In fact, researchers have found that you can actually predict how much empathy a person will have for someone else by measuring how much their facial muscles actually automatically mimic the other person's facial expressions. And I'm sure you've had this experience yourself where you'll be talking to someone and they break out into laughter and you find yourself smiling and laughing or you see someone who's worried, and you start to notice that your own forehead is furrowing. Or you're with someone who's angry and you notice your own jaw clenching. Or someone starts to cry, and you realize that you're crying too. This is all natural and it really does actually support our ability to connect and care for others. And in fact, one of the most surprising studies related to empathy that I've seen, showed that people who receive Botox for wrinkles around the muscles in your forehead, around your eyes and around your mouth, it actually not only inhibits the movement of those muscles but it inhibits empathy, because people are no longer able to automatically and unconsciously mirror other people's facial expressions. Now, another way that we know that contagious distress is really important for empathy, comes from a series of ingenious studies, that actually tried to manipulate people's ability to feel their own pain to see if your ability to be in pain actually affects your ability to respond with empathy to another person's pain. So in one of these studies, the participants were told they were taking part in a study that just looks at how people experience pain. And it started off with them receiving a series of really painful electric shocks to the back of their hand. And they went through a series of shocks to find the shock that was so painful that they would rate it extremely painful, but just bearable. Okay, so they already had the experience of pain themselves. And then after they got the series of shocks, they were given a placebo pill by a doctor who told them that the pill was an FDA-approved, highly effective and very expensive painkiller. And we know that when people hear these things it makes a placebo very effective at reducing pain. So after they waited 15 minutes for this placebo painkiller to kick in, they then gave the participants another series of painful shocks, but they added something, they alternated the participants receiving their own painful shocks with watching someone else get a painful shock and that other person had not received the painkiller, and the participants knew this. They'd received a painkiller, the other person had not. So not too surprisingly, the participants reported their own shocks as less painful and distressing after they got the painkiller. What was a little more surprising, is that they also rated the other person's pain as less severe, even though they knew that person had not received the painkiller. And they said that the other person's emotional suffering, was less severe as well. Other studies have repeated this kind of procedure but added brain imaging, and measured what was happening in participants' brains. And they actually found that painkillers suppress the brain's ability to empathically mirror or model other people's experiences and that leads to a breakdown in compassion, because if you can't catch another person's distress, the entire process of empathy and compassion are short-circuited in the brain.