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 patient’s needs.
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 doctor.
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.
CARE Guideline #1: Make the Patient Feel at Ease
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:
- keeping him or her warm and comfortable
- making sure he or she has a source of entertainment, such as books, TV, or video games to pass the time
- keeping plenty of tissues at hand
- keeping medicine within reach
- ensuring that he or she is receiving enough food and liquids
- taking him or her to the doctor if needed
CARE Guideline #2 and #3: Allow Your Loved One to Tell His or Her Story and Really Listen
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:
- not interrupting
- providing feedback
- responding accordingly
CARE Guideline #4: Be Interested in Your Loved One as a Whole Person
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.
CARE Guideline #5: Fully Understand Concerns
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.
CARE Guideline #6: Show Care and Compassion
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.
CARE Guideline #7: Be Positive
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.
CARE Guideline #8: Explain Things Clearly
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.
CARE Guideling #9 and #10: Help Your Loved One Take Control and Help Create a Plan of Action
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.