This pandemic presents many reasons to expect greater empathy from each other. Since the crisis began, we’ve heard heart-wrenching stories about those we care about losing loved ones, getting sick, or losing their jobs. We also feel for people who are outside of our communities, such as the elderly, working class, and essential and frontline workers, all of whom are more vulnerable to COVID-19 With suffering surrounding us, we find reason to ask ourselves: “What can I do to help?”
However, juggling kids, working from home, parental caregiving and homeschooling, can make it challenging to turn good intentions into positive actions. Why? Because unlike previous crises, such as Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, or the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting among so many others, the pandemic directly affects us all. Even if traumatic loss hasn’t knocked on our door, we’re caught in a whirlpool of anxiety and danger about a deadly virus, feeling isolated during the stay-at-home orders, or contending with greater domestic strife.
According to researchers, grief, stress, and uncertainty catapult the body into survival mode, scrambling our emotional radar in the limbic region of our brain, making it harder to feel for others. These conditions also impact the prefrontal cortex that fosters rational thought, the kind that helps us step back and take in another person’s perspective before responding. Empathy is both feeling for, and imagining another person’s point of view. For many of us, living in a pandemic makes it that much harder to empathize with others. That said, the pandemic doesn’t need to turn us into empathy withholders, because we can do a lot to alleviate this problem:
Accept the present.
We can become the caring people we were prior to COVID-19 by honoring the ways the pandemic has turned our lives upside down.
First, we must acknowledge how the pandemic has affected us. A recent survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that nearly 50 percent of Americans believe the crisis has impacted their mental health. As a result, we may feel scared, irritable, angry, and exhausted.
Being able to identify and name these feelings releases neurotransmitters in thebrain that quiets the body’s “fight-or-flight” response, which typically springs into action during times of stress. Once the body is no longer on high alert, we can tune in to other people’s experiences and suffering. As paradoxical as it may seem, research shows that self awareness enhances our awareness of others, too.
When stress is constant and life is unpredictable, self-care can go out the window. However, tending to our own needs expands our ability to care for others. Now, this doesn’t mean we should overly indulge and drink our troubles away while the world around us crumbles. But it’s scientifically proven that spending time outdoors, listening to music, or practicing mindfulness can calm and nourish the soul.
The good news: we don’t need to block off hours each day for self-care. As with any new goal, starting small can make a difference. To begin, consider taking ten minutes to step away from stimulation, like social media, and replace scrolling through Instagram with a soothing activity. Not only will doing so improve your mental health, it will also benefit the well-being of those around you.
Adjust to the situation.
During this unprecedented time, we have fewer impromptu discussions with colleagues, friends, or neighbors that might reveal their grief. Even those closest to us might find themselves turning inward, because they’re feeling exhausted, anxious, depressed, or numb.
In order to be a resource to others, we have to actively seek them out. That means checking-in regularly with our loved ones via text, phone or Zoom, and cutting past small talk by asking, “What have you read or watched this week that you enjoyed or hated?” or “What feels different about this week from last week?” or “What surprises you about living with your family (or working alone, or being designated an ‘essential’ worker?”
We might also make an extra effort to smile behind our masks, and inquire about the well-being of service workers in the stores, post office, and in medical settings. Make a mindful decision to connect, knowing that as tired and exhausted as you may feel, others may be feeling worse. We have to invest in the karma of kindness, in order to reap its rewards.
Once you’re mentally prepared to be present for someone else, consider how you want to help. In the past, you may have been the chef who made and provided homemade meals, the caretaker who took care of your friend’s kids, or the listener who stopped at the drop of a hat to console a suffering colleague. However, these times call for some ingenuity.
If you’re tired, consider penning a text, instead scheduling a virtual happy hour. Feeling bored? Consider creating and mailing a card, instead of sending another kissy-face emoji. If you’re sheltering in place, think of ways to help unemployed friends by offering to connect them with others, read their resume, or loan out funds if you can spare them. Another idea, sing to a loved one on voicemail, or share a soothing mantra. Life has been turned upside down; let’s make the most of it by mixing up how we deliver empathy.
When life is tough, empathy can be hard to muster. Acknowledging this challenge is the first step in making a more conscientious effort to connect with others. To do this, you have to make self-care a discipline, which means tending to your needs, even when you don’t feel like it. When we feel nurtured, we can then extend more to those around us. This may mean being more demonstrative with those you encounter, reaching out to loved ones more regularly, or engaging in community service by donating to charities and organizations in need.
These emotional exercises will help build an empathy muscle that grows stronger each week. We need each other now, and that won’t disappear. We may not have a vaccine for the virus, but empathy and love are strong elixirs that can help us survive this unchartered time.
Dr. Kelsey Crowe is an empathy expert, and founder of the training group on Empathy Intelligence™. She is co-author with Emily McDowell of the book "There Is No Good Card for This: What to do and say when life is scary, awful, and unfair to the people you love." She and her team work all over the world bringing empathy focused perspectives on interpersonal trust, power and privilege, and resilience in the workplace, and in life. Using her work to help people center, connect, and empower themselves, she hopes for a day when no one suffers alone simply because others didn’t know what to do or say.