Stress Makes Some Of Us More Empathic, Some More Self-Centered


To have empathy is to understand a situation from another's point of view. It requires us to distinguish our own thoughts and feelings from those of the other person(s).

When stressed, our level of empathy typically increases or decreases. Stressed women tend to become more sensitive to others' perspectives. Men with added stress tend to become more self-centered.

However, this male-female distinction will not be true of everyone we meet. Some men remain highly sensitive to others when stressed, while some stressed women become blind to any viewpoint not their own.

Two Ways of Coping With Stress

In demanding situations stress can be motivating. It prompts us to muster internal and external resources to meet the situation’s demands. Stress becomes a health hazard when the demands cannot be met, and the stress is unrelenting.

People cope with stress in a couple different ways. One way is to limit the internal resources being used to manage the situation; the other is to find external supports that help us fulfill the demands:

  1. Research indicates men tend to cope with stress by paying less attention to their internal cognitive and emotional resources. This leaves them more self-centered, or less empathic, but allows them to focus on resolving or fixing the problem as they think best.
  2. Many women in a stressful situation will use their internal emotional and cognitive resources to seek out external supports. Their level of empathy increases since this requires gaining cooperation from others.

Pros and Cons

Whatever strategy a person uses to cope with stress there are pros and cons involved. When people become more self-centered they are free to attack a problem head-on and quickly, but might ruffle relationship feathers when they do. Those who become more empathic may take longer to attack a problem but will build relationships as they go.

Whether we become more or less empathic when stressed, it is helpful to realize that our way is not the only way. Although, it makes sense that those who become extra empathic under duress will be more understanding of the self-centered approach than the other way around.

Different Experiences and Hormones

Scientists theorize that women tend to be more pro social under stress through learning, biology, or both.

“At a psychosocial level, women may have internalized the experience that they receive more external support when they are able to interact better with others. This means that the more they need help—and are thus stressed—the more they apply social strategies,” said researcher Giorgia Silani. “At a physiological level, the gender difference might be accounted for by the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is a hormone connected with social behaviors and a previous study found that in conditions of stress women had higher physiological levels of oxytocin than men.”

Photo by ralphbijker at flickr

Source: Science Daily


The information provided on the is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her health professional. This information is solely for informational and educational purposes. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Neither the owners or employees of nor the author(s) of site content take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading this site. Always speak with your primary health care provider before engaging in any form of self treatment. Please see our Legal Statement for further information.

PsyWeb Poll

Are you currently taking or have you ever been prescribed anti-depressants?
Total votes: 3979