Caregivers can experience a wide range of feelings. From the grief and despair brought on by watching their loved one age away to the exhaustion and isolation that results from the job itself, caregivers often find themselves on a roller coaster of emotions.
But there’s one emotion that has been shown by interpersonal communication experts to reduce stress and improve the physical and mental wellbeing of a caregiver: Empathy. And more specifically and scientifically, clinical empathy.
Empathy involves an emotional understanding and connection with what another person is feeling. It requires you to put yourself in that person’s situation and explore your feelings to create a deeper bond with that person. Empathyis not the same as sympathy, which involves pity or feeling sorry for the other person.
Empathy can be beneficial for caregivers because it leads to helping behavior which helps us form relationships. When we practice empathy, we are more likely to exhibit prosocial behaviorthat helps others.
But that’s not all,clinical studieshave recently linked physician empathy with several positive health outcomes such as an increase in immune function, controlled blood sugar, and even a shorter duration of colds and hospital stays. It looks like science does back the phrase, “do good, feel good.”
We all know that feeling we get after doing a good deed--a sense of accomplishment for a job well done. But enjoying the benefits of empathy does not come without effort.
Why Empathy Can Be Difficult
We expect close relationships to be reciprocal in nature, so we feel hurt when we do not see our feelings mirrored by the other party. The practice of empathy, however, can sometimes feel like a one-way street. Based on your loved one’s condition and the path that they have traveled in life, they may not be able to see through their own emotions or the fog of their illness in order to demonstrate empathy of their own.
Putting Empathy into Practice
The following are some simple ways in which you can express empathy to your loved one:
Maintain open, receptive body language by sitting close and making eye contact.
Maintain an interested and concerned facial expression.
Use physical touch, such as laying your hand on your loved one’s arm or shoulder, to convey empathy and understanding even when you are unable to express it verbally.
Keep your tone of voice calm and soothing by consciously lowering your vocal register.
Observe your loved one’s body language and facial expressions to get the full message of what they are feeling or trying to communicate.
Identify, label, and acknowledge the emotions that you see. You can use phrases like “You look sad when you talk about that. I also felt sad when something similar happened to me.”
Try to identify a way to help. For example, “You seem very frustrated today. Is there something that I can do to make you feel less frustrated?”
The Connection Between Self-Care and Empathy
It is more challenging to be kind, gentle, and empathetic if your caregiving duties have you feeling physically and emotionally drained. It is vital that you take time for yourself every now and then and practice dailyself-care. The following are some steps that you can take to avoid caregiver burnout:
Be open to asking for help and delegate tasks.
Be willing to say no to friends and family if you need time for yourself.
Try stress management techniques such as yoga, deep breathing exercises, or meditation.
Spend time with others to avoid getting stuck in a rut.
Don’t neglect your physical health. Make sure you get plenty of sleep, exercise, eat a healthy diet, and attend to your own medical needs.
The next time you feel frustrated because your loved one is argumentative or demanding, take a moment to step back and ask yourself how you would feel if you were in constant pain or required assistance for even the most basic and personal of tasks.
If you are honest with yourself, you can probably picture yourself reacting in much the same way if the roles were reversed. It is important to recognize that empathy will not magically transform your loved one’s behavior or attitudes. It does, however, have the ability to transform you and how you react to their words or actions so that you can support them with compassionand sensitivityin even the most difficult moments.