Not only is empathy an important characteristic to have for personal relationships, but now research has found it can help heal.
Written by Brian Krans
| Published on October 19, 2012Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD
Empathy is the ability to recognize the feelings that are
being experienced by someone else. It’s the capacity that we humans have to put
ourselves in one another’s shoes, and to really relate. Not only is empathy an important
characteristic to have for personal relationships, but now research has found
it can help heal.
A 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin showed that
empathy can reduce the length of the common cold. In the study, 350 patients
experiencing cold symptoms at two Wisconsin hospitals rated their doctor’s
bedside manner with the 10-question Consultation and Relational Empathy (CARE)
measure. CARE is a questionnaire that gauges how empathetic a doctor was to a
The surprising results of the study showed that patients of doctors
who scored perfectly on the CARE questionnaire were sick nearly a day less than
the others. That’s 16 percent lower than tho se who received a less empathetic
The study also tested the levels of interleukin-8 (IL-8) in
the patients who participated in the study. IL-8s are protein molecules your
body releases to help fight off the common cold. They are considered the best
measurement of the body’s response to a cold. Sure enough, patients with the
most empathetic care had double the levels of IL-8, meaning their bodies were
working harder on their cold.
The study suggested that empathy not only helps the mind,
but also physically helps the body heal faster.
While we’d all like a great doctor with phenomenal bedside
manner, not everyone can go to the doctor when they’re sick. If your child or
other loved one is sick, there is something you can do besides heating up
chicken soup. Using the same CARE guidelines that the study patients rated
their doctors on, you can empathetically care for a loved one who is sick so they
can feel better faster.
A cold can make a person feel so miserable that getting
another box of tissues seems like a chore. Helping your loved one feel as
comfortable as possible is one way to make him or her feel at ease.
Make your loved one feel at ease by:
Empathy can be expressed through active listening. This
means allowing your child or husband or wife or mom or dad to explain how he or
she feels, what he or she is going through, and anything else.
Be an active listener by keeping eye contact with the person
when he or she speaks. Other ways of showing that you’re listening include:
Don’t just focus on your loved one’s symptoms. Really pay
attention to what he or she is going through. This goes along with listening,
tending needs, and paying attention to the emotions he or she is going through.
The more attentive you are, the more your loved one will know you care about
his or her overall health.
Being sick isn’t just feeling bad. It means time off of
work, school, social events, and more. It’s putting your life on hold to feel
miserable, and no one wants that. This can be frustrating for many people.
You can help by taking care of chores like arranging to have
schoolwork picked up, or running any other errands that need to be handled.
Being attentive to a person’s needs shows you care for his
or her well-being. Helping your loved one feel comfortable by preparing food and
other basic tasks. Use a calm, soft voice to show
compassion and listen to his or her needs.
There’s no need to tell your loved one how bad he or she
looks or feels. He or she already knows. If he or she is able to keep a sense
of humor while sick, compliment him or her on it.
Focusing on recovery can help speed things along. Tell your
loved one when he or she is starting to appear healthier.
Tell your loved one what you’re doing to help him or her
feel better. Explain what medications you’re giving him or her, what the
intended effect is, and how often he or she will be taking it.
A person feels in control when he or she has a say in what’s
going on. Instead of telling your loved one what kind of care he or she will be
getting, ask his or her preferences. This can be as simple as asking what type
of soup or a certain flavor of cough syrup your loved one would like.
Empowering people to come
up with their own plans helps them become more self-sufficient and feel more in
control of their own care. It’s also a way to get a little break now and then from
caring for someone.
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