How To Cope With Empathic Distress

Empathy, the ability to feel another person’s experience as if it were one’s own, is a beautiful human trait. But in some cases, witnessing the suffering of others can lead to empathic distress – a negative emotional response psychologists describe as 'second-hand trauma.'

If you're feeling overwhelmed and grief-stricken by world events, you're not alone.

Empathic distress usually affects those in caregiving roles, such as healthcare workers, or social workers, who are chronically exposed to the suffering of others, but according to experts, it can affect anyone.

What’s more, the trauma doesn’t have to be personally experienced to be felt. According to the American Psychological Association, it can even be triggered by repeated exposure to distressing news and social media footage.

What Are Some Of The Warning Signs? 

Empathic distress can feel overwhelming – like profound mental and physical exhaustion. Those affected might feel anxious all the time, close to tears, or easily irritated. Others may feel numb, or feel a sense of cynicism or apathy towards life. Some may withdraw from loved ones, social life, or activities they previously enjoyed.

Many also feel a deep sense of guilt or shame for being unable to help those who are suffering. They may feel responsible for the pain of others, or see their own inability to cope as a personal failure, or a weakness.

Often, the burden of guilt and helplessness is so great it can cause those affected to ‘check out’ or disengage, avoiding the person or issue altogether. This disassociation is described by social neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki as “a strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others, accompanied by the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect oneself from excessive negative feelings.”

Empathic distress can also manifest in unexplained physical symptoms like headaches, digestive issues, a loss of appetite or disturbed sleep.

Research shows that those experiencing empathic distress are more likely to suffer from low-grade inflammation, exhibiting higher levels of c-reactive protein, a biomarker linked to lower immunity and an increased risk of illness, anxiety and burnout. 

8 Tools To Help You Cope (And Build Resilience)

Like burnout or any other stress-related condition, empathic distress can have long-term mental health consequences. It’s important to face it and realise that self-care is not an indulgence – it’s an oxygen mask. Support your own wellbeing so that you can feel better and continue to show up for those you want to help.


Research shows that self-compassion is a powerful technique to build resilience. According to psychologist Kristen Neff, an expert in self-compassion, we are harshly self-critical. She advises giving ourselves the same kindness and support we’d give to a good friend. Simply being kind and non-judgemental towards your own struggles can change your outlook. “Treating ourselves like we would a friend means we step outside our usual way of looking at things, putting our own situation into better perspective,” she explains.


Don’t go it alone. Social connection and emotional support are vital to stop you spiralling. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and confide in good friends, family, or coworkers – they want to help. Or, seek out groups or communities with like-minded individuals who share your pain, and are taking action, or healing together.


Meditation and mindfulness activate the vagus nerve, decrease the heart rate and suppress the flight-or-fight response. Mindfulness in particular, can reduce feelings of overwhelm and a loss of control by helping you remain anchored in the present moment.


Scent and breathwork are two of the fastest (and easiest) ways to change your emotional state and prevent anxiety from taking hold.

The sense of smell is closely linked to the limbic system, which plays an integral role in emotion regulation. The simple act of inhaling an essential oil like lavender, rose, bergamot, or ylang-ylang, for example, activates your parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) nervous system, encouraging the body to relax. Keep a calming essential oil on hand, or diffuse a scent in your space to create a sense of comfort and ease stress and tension.

The physiological sigh is a well-studied breathing technique you can do anywhere, anytime for immediate stress relief. Take two deep inhales through the nose (no exhale in between) until your lungs are at capacity, followed by a full exhale to lungs empty.


Exercise can boost your mood and overall wellbeing, and help you regain a sense of control. Get outside, or head to the gym but if you’re emotionally fragile, avoid high-intensity exercise, which can exacerbate the body’s fight-or-flight response. Instead, go for a walk, an easy run, or do some yoga.


Recognise that your mind needs reprieve. This means maintaining some boundaries and taking time to recharge. Learn to say no, avoid overextending yourself, and prioritise self-care. Time blocking is one technique – whether it’s a few hours, an evening or a morning – set aside time for personal wellness or healthy habits, whatever that means to you.


Taking action can alleviate feelings of powerlessness, and transform distress into compassion – which feels good. Donate to charities, volunteer, or support initiatives that aid those affected. Even small gestures make an impact.  Be inspired by this powerful quote: “ ‘But what can I do, I'm just one person.’ – said 7 billion people.”


Doomscrolling can send your stress levels soaring. Stay informed, but limit your news consumption or time on social media for a set period, such as 24 hours, or only at a certain time of day, like during a mid-morning coffee break. When you do pick up your device, set a timer. Research in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, a journal published by the American Psychological Association, shows that limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day can significantly enhance mental health, leading to lower levels of anxiety and depression.