Kindness, Empathy and Mental Health
Lina Haji, Psy.D.
Sigmund Freud once said, “Out of your vulnerabilities, will come your greatest strength.” Psychology and psychiatry have proven time
and time again that empathy, compassion, and kindness, which require us to practice selflessness, have numerous benefits for mental and physical health.
From a biological perspective, acts of kindness signal the brain to release serotonin and dopamine, known as “feel good transmitters,” and endorphins which in turn lessen pain, depression, and anxiety. Kindness and compassion have been proven to release Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” which increases self-esteem and optimism. Oxytocin also reduces blood pressure and has been dubbed the “cardioprotective” hormone. Some studies have even indicated that energy increases, stress decreases, and the lifespan extends. Research from Emory University has displayed that when an individual is kind to another, the brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up resulting in a “helper’s high.” The mechanism behind being kind is thus self-reinforcing.
From a social perspective, kindness towards others results in connection to others and a lessening in feelings of isolation. Small acts of kindness build up compassion in oneself and have the added component of improving mood in others. Research indicates that kindness doesn’t just positively affect the giver and receiver but can also benefit onlookers. According to www.randomactsofkindness.org, those who witness acts of kindness are also more likely to “pay it forward,” resulting in a domino effect. Along these same lines, altruistic people, specifically those who engage in charitable donations expressed higher levels of overall happiness according to a 2010 Harvard Business School survey.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup” is a trendy quote that has been making its way around social media as of late. But what does this quote mean? Before we can be kind and compassionate to others, we must first be kind and compassionate to ourselves. In today’s world, productivity and pressure-filled environments consume us daily. We often find ourselves skipping meals, forgetting to connect with loved ones, taking breaks, and even neglecting proper sleep. It is virtually impossible to care for others when we are depleted ourselves. Sometimes not prioritizing ourselves can result in collateral damage. We may become short-tempered, irritable, moody, and overwhelmed. More often than not, these reactions are a direct result of frustration within ourselves. At this point kindness, compassion and empathy towards others are likely to be absent. Once we replenish, whether that means taking a day off, treating ourselves to a nice meal, or exercising, we are more likely to respond as opposed to react, ask others about themselves, and engage in overall positive interactions throughout our day. Overall, the kindness cycle asks of us two principles: being kind to others in order to maintain the cycle and being kind to ourselves to sustain our own well-being.
Kindness and empathy are ever present in the field of mental health, medicine and substance abuse treatment. The very act of caring for another involves kindness, even if it is implied in one’s profession. How do mental health professionals practice kindness? Let us examine the concept of empathy.
Empathy, which some use interchangeably with kindness and compassion, is defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner (Merriam-Webster, 2021)
Mental health professionals receive empathy training pretty early on in their schooling-particularly over the last decade. Research has indicated that trusting relationships between providers and patients results in optimal care. How is empathy practiced in mental health? For one, evidence-based communication styles are being widely implemented. This entails using non-judgmental language, open-ended questions, and active listening skills for example. In addition, mental health professions are humans, and all have judgments. If empathy training is provided, these professionals can learn to acknowledge their biases and mitigate them. Lastly, empathy training has been proven to assist with de-stigmatization, increase in treatment seeking, and overall better outcomes.
Substance abuse treatment, which often focuses on cognition and behavior changing, boundaries, and family dynamics also requires support and kindness. Although not an empirically based “treatment,” Alcoholics Anonymous has utilized kindness for decades.
AA, the 12-step program developed by two alcoholics in 1935 in Akron, Ohio concluded their 12-step program with step 12: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
The premise behind step 12 encompasses all of the aforementioned concepts. Once an alcoholic is on solid ground with their sobriety, it is encumbered upon them to then help other alcoholics. This process is multi-faceted. Firstly, when an individual is worrying about someone else, they are less focused on themselves. This requires the alcoholic to cease engaging in self-loathing and rumination and “get out of themselves.” Secondly, it allows for the alcoholic to be kind and helpful to an individual who was once in their same situation thereby expressing kindness, compassion, and empathy. Thirdly, it fully displays the concept of “paying it forward,” and produces a domino effect that has withstood the test of time as evidenced by the ever-growing fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. It results in an increased social support network and activity.
In conclusion, kindness, empathy, and compassion are vital concepts that are not just fluffy theories. They have vast mental, physical, and social benefits.
What are small acts of kindness that can improve your day:
1. Call a family member or friend and ask them how they are doing. Then engage in active listening and refrain from giving advice.
2. Donate to a homeless shelter or volunteer your time at a charity
3. Give a stranger a compliment.
4. Surprise someone with a small gift.
5. Send a loved one a letter instead of a text.
6. Pick up litter
7. Plant a tree.
8. Bring treats to work.
9. Help a neighbor with their groceries.
10. Leave a generous tip.