How feeling bad changes the brain & impacts relationships

Our emotions are so powerful that when we are in a positive mood, it can dampen how much pain we feel providing us with an analgesic-like effect. When it comes to negative emotions, the opposite occurs: how we experience pain is exaggerated.

Positive and negative emotions also has impact on how we relate to others.

When our friends are down and gloomy, the feeling can be contagious and can makes us feel more miserable too. Bad moods, negativity, can even spread on social media.

A 2017 study, has shown that when we feel bad it affects our in-built capacity to respond to others in pain. It literally dampens our empathy.

Negative emotions can suppress our brain capacity to be sensitive to others’ pain

Participants were then shown positive or negative movie clips while in a brain scanner. Those who watched a negative clip and then saw clips of others in pain showed less brain activity in areas that are related to pain: the anterior insula and middle cingulate cortex. These are usually active when we see others in pain as well as when we experience pain ourselves. 

Another study found that after watching a negative clip, people tended to judge a face with a neutral emotion as more negative.

These results obviously have real-world implications. If a person in power has been exposed to something negative in their lives – even something as simple as a negative movie – they could be less sensitive to others in pain and even view them more negatively. Our bad moods literally make us less receptive to others’ feelings.

Anxious and depressed patients who suffer from an excess of negative emotions are more likely to focus on their own problems and be isolated.

A lack of empathy has other implications too. Findings show that reduced empathy will result in less money donated to charity. Brain scans reveal that we also show less empathy to those who are not in our immediate social circle.

So why would negative emotions reduce empathy?

It could be that a specific type of empathy, called empathic distress, is at play. This, explains Olga Klimecki, at the University of Geneva, is “the feeling of being overwhelmed” when something bad happens to someone else, which makes you want to protect yourself instead of being overcome by negative feelings. This type of empathy even shows very different brain activation compared to typical empathy. This kind of distress might naturally also reduce compassion.

One 2016 study even found that empathic distress increases aggression. Participants were subjected to unfair scenarios and then had the chance to punish or forgive their competitors. The participants were asked to do personality tests before they came into the lab. Those who were more naturally compassionate reacted with less derogatory behaviour.

For Olga Klimecki this was telling. In her extensive research on empathy she has shown that it is possible to cultivate more compassionate behaviour. She found that feelings of compassionate empathy can be trained. Our emotional responses to others are therefore clearly not set in stone.

So next time you are in a foul mood, consider the effect it might have on the people you communicate with day-to-day. 

*Emilie Qiao-Tasserit, the University of Geneva, and colleagues.


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