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Stress is making us less compassionate

The next time you witness someone ignoring another person’s obvious pain, don’t give him a dirty look. Instead, offer to teach him how to meditate. A new study reveals that when we’re stressed out, we’re less capable of showing compassion toward others.

As part of the study, which was published in the journal Current Biology, researchers reportedly gave mice and man a drug that blocks our stress hormones. They then discovered something amazing: When our stress levels are under control, we are more present for the people in our lives and more able to show empathy toward them.

The study focuses on the phenomenon known as “emotional contagion of pain” and shows that both people and mice empathize more with friends (or, in a rodent’s case, his cage mates). This may seem like a no-brainer, but here’s a surprising discovery: The reason we don’t empathize with random strangers isn’t because we feel like we don’t have anything in common with them or because we just couldn’t give a flip, it’s because we feel more stress when we’re around unfamiliar people.

And more stress equals less empathy.

Researchers gave mice a stress hormone blocker called metyrapone and — voilà — just like that, the little creatures were suddenly hugging it out with strange mice that seemed like they were in pain instead of eating their heads off or whatever it is that mice do to stranger mice.

The same stress blocker was given to undergraduate college students participating in the experiment. They were paired up with strangers and told to watch that person slip his hand into freezing cold ice water. Their reactions to their partner’s discomfort after receiving the blocker were extraordinarily different from their natural reactions. They actually exhibited pained facial expressions and bodily movements when witnessing their partner’s pain.

This is big news and offers great insight into the reasons for our actions, and lack of action, when it comes to helping others or at least trying to understand their emotional state. Now, if we could only purchase over-the-counter stress hormone blockers — or simply all learn how to meditate — the world would be a much more compassionate place.

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