Empathy isn’t just about understanding others—it could boost your health too. Learn how empathy can improve your immune response and be a unique pathway to well-being.
How does empathy work on a biological level to boost your immune system?
Research indicates that you can heal faster when your body receives messages such empathy, kindness, and tolerance. These trigger an initial immune response—then your body’s natural healing forces can kick in too.
When you empathize with a friend either in an uplifting or trying situation, your body and theirs release oxytocin and endorphins that strengthen immunity, soothe anxiety, and bring calm.
So, when you help someone in small or large ways you typically feel better. This is known as the “helpers high.” In contrast, holding on to anger and hatred suppresses immunity by raising stress hormones, which are linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, insomnia, anxiety, and a range of other serious health problems.
Compelling research has also shown that simply observing an act of empathy can improve your immune response.
After 132 students at Harvard University watched a video of Mother Teresa caring for children who had been abandoned and people who suffered from leprosy, the antibodies in their saliva markedly increased, a sign of heightened immunity.
This finding, known as the “Mother Teresa Effect,” is striking. It demonstrates that when you witness an act of empathy, it can create more robust immunity in you. Therefore, your empathy can support other people’s health, and their empathy can support yours. This is a powerful testament to the healing ability of empathy.
Charles Darwin, in his book The Descent of Man (published in 1871, over a decade after his On the Origin of the Species), writes that the survival of the kindest, not the fittest, is the most important element in human evolution. He elevates empathy to a crucial survival-oriented trait.
Darwin argues that we are a profoundly social and caring species that instinctively helps others in distress. The Descent of Man was published shortly before Darwin’s death and was the most underread of his books.
Still, his scientific turnabout or maturing awareness—however we view Darwin’s astute realization—points to the biological advantage of empathy that can potentially preserve humankind.
Your biology is an invaluable ally in helping you boost your immune response. Understanding how to tap into its miraculous functions lets you create an environment for empathy to flourish.
Mindfully listening to your body is a way to show kindness toward yourself, others, and the greater world.
EMPATHY IN ACTION – Yes, Empathy Can Improve Your Immune Response
Soothe Your Nervous System to Boost Your Immune Response
When you are feeling or thinking “too much,” it’s time to prioritize self-care. Practice this exercise from my book The Genius of Empathy to maximize your health and decrease overwhelm as soon as you feel it building. If you are too busy at work to take a break, plan some time to regroup later at home.
Close the door to your oﬃce or bedroom for a few minutes. Get in a comfortable position and take some slow deep breaths to relax your body. Inwardly say, To help me rest and recenter myself, I can pause and activate the peaceful vagus nerve through meditation.
Slowly inhale to a count of six, hold your breath to a count of six, then exhale to a count of six. Repeat the cycle three times. This regenerative breathing calms your nervous system. From a more serene place, you can make wiser choices. Harnessing your biology lets you modulate how much empathy feels good.
Excerpt from The Genius of Empathy (Sounds True ©2024) Judith Orloff, MD.
Do you believe in the healing ability of empathy? Share your thoughts in the comments below!