Empathy is the term that psychologists use to describe the ability to mentally place oneself in another person’s “world” and see life from his or her perspective. Some aspects of empathy depend on rational thought processes in the brain, while other aspects depend on the brain’s emotional processes. According to the results of a new study published in August 2013 in the Journal of Affective Disorders, people with relatively minor depression symptoms or an official depression diagnosis frequently experience empathy-related problems that cause them to “catch” stressful emotional states from other people or fail to logically understand others.
Psychologists commonly refer to empathy that stems from rational thinking as cognitive empathy. Conversely, empathy that stems from emotional responses is known as either emotional empathy or affective empathy. In broad terms, individuals who engage in cognitive empathy use their own logical thought processes as a basis for understanding the logic that drives another person’s choices, attitudes and behaviors. Individuals who engage in emotional empathy respond more or less instinctively to the emotions of others by adopting those emotions as if they came from inside rather than outside. One form of emotional empathy, called empathic concern, involves a relatively detached recognition of other people’s emotions and generates a sense of compassionate regard for others’ emotional difficulties. Another form of emotional empathy, known as empathic distress or personal distress, involves a more direct experience of other people’s emotions that effectively overwhelms an individual’s own emotional processes.
Depression can refer to either a temporarily “down” emotional state or a more serious, prolonged state that significantly alters a person’s ability to maintain a sense of well-being or function normally in his or her daily routine. People who experience dysfunctional or debilitating depression symptoms for two weeks or longer are frequently candidates for a diagnosis of the common mental disorder called major depression. People who only feel “down” or “blue” for short periods of time may not qualify for a depression diagnosis, and may instead have what doctors call subclinical depression. However, some people who don’t have major depression still feel “down” or “blue” for extended periods of time and experience significant problems functioning normally. In these circumstances, doctors may diagnose a condition called dysthymia or persistent depressive disorder. Women develop various forms of depression substantially more often than men.
In the study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders, a team of Dutch researchers analyzed the results of 37 previous studies that examined the connection between various forms of empathy and either diagnosable depression or subclinical depression. After completing this analysis, the study’s authors concluded that depressed people have an unusual tendency to accumulate large amounts of empathic stress. Under the influence of this stress, they develop a confusion between “self” and “other” that causes them to withdraw from other people’s negative emotional states as if those states were their own. The authors also concluded that depressed people tend to have a reduced ability to experience cognitive empathy. Symptoms that indicate the effects of this limitation include problems accurately gauging how others will respond to a given situation and problems developing the logical associations needed to adopt or comprehend someone else’s point of view.
Interestingly, the authors of the study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that people affected by depression don’t appear to lose the ability to experience a relatively detached degree of empathic concern. Instead, “contagious” empathic distress may produce its effects by overriding empathic concern’s more balanced responses. The authors make note of several points that could potentially limit the usefulness of their work. First, while women develop depression more often than men, there is not enough evidence to determine whether depressed women have more empathy-related problems than depressed men. In addition, some of the studies included in the analysis relied on participants’ personal reporting of their empathy levels rather than objective measurements of those levels.
The authors also note that problems with rational empathy found in depressed people may stem from a more general loss of clear thinking associated with the presence of depression, not from a separate decline in empathy-related mental skills. Finally, none of the studies under review conclusively proved that depression and problems with empathy are actually causally related. Instead, the studies only showed that depression and empathy-related problems appear together significantly more often than would normally happen through random chance.