Empathy Can Have Detrimental Effects on Former Drug Users

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Empathy Can Have Detrimental Effects on Former Drug Users

The behavior of an individual can be affected when they are addicted to drugs. / Photo by: Kamira via Shutterstock


Drug addiction is more common than many of us realize. It has affected the lives of millions of people around the world - from detrimental outcomes to their physical, emotional, and mental well-being to death. In fact, the International Overdose Awareness Day reported that at least 190,900 premature deaths are caused by drugs across the globe. Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that the global burden of disease related to drug issues increased by 5.4% worldwide. 

According to DrugAbuse.com, drug addiction can affect a person's behavioral and biological health issues. These can affect not only themselves but also their relationships with their families, friends, and communities. This is also an issue of public health and safety, since drug abuse is highly associated with crime. Drug addiction also changes the brain in several ways, which make quitting hard. Usually, quitting from drug use takes more than good intentions or a strong will. 

Some people use drugs for a variety of reasons - they want to feel good, perform better at school or work, or are just curious about it. Because of this, a lot of people have misconceptions about drug addicts. Some have to stay away from them, or else they feel troubled knowing that a drug addict is around. However, there are also those who try to see the goodness of these drug addicts. They empathize and try to help them as much as possible. Unfortunately, empathy doesn't always yield the desired results, especially when it comes to drug addicts. 

Empathy as Human Nature

The ability to understand another person's thoughts, feelings, state of being, or just putting yourself in their shoes is empathy. It's seeing their vulnerabilities, aspirations, and conflicts from their own perspective, while also knowing and feeling your own. Often, sympathy and just regular compassion are confused with empathy. For instance, your friend might have had a miscarriage. Sympathy is feeling sorry for her without actually grasping her pain because you're viewing her experience in your own perspective. While with empathy, you try to help and engage with her problem to solve it. 

In a recent study published in Neuron, researchers found that imagining and internalizing a person's pain and also feeling compassionate as we sympathize with their condition involves distinct patterns in brain activity. According to Science Daily, the research also showed how our brain patterns associated with these feelings are consistent and predictable across individuals. In an interview, author Yoni Ashar of the University of Colorado said, "Feelings of empathy are virtues we want to cultivate personally and in society. Understanding these emotions could open the doors to increasing empathy and compassion in personal relationships and on a broader societal level."


The ability of an individual to understand another person's feeling or state of being is called empathy. / Photo by: Estrada Anton via Shutterstock


The study observed 66 adults, who listened to 24 true short stories of human distress while sitting in a brain scanner. One short story described young drug addict who was cared for at a boarding school and eventually helped others cope with their addiction. "We took a naturalistic experimental approach that more closely resembles how we encounter the suffering of others in our daily lives," Ashar said. The researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record the brain activity patterns as the participants listened to the stories. 

Aside from performing brain scans, the researchers gathered a separate group of 200 adults. They were asked to listen to the stories and provide moment-by-moment ratings of their feelings. The findings showed that empathic care was associated with both happy and sad feelings. On the other hand, emphatic distress was generally linked with negative feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. "This suggests that empathic care, or compassion, reflects a blend of both warmth and distress," Ashar said. 

Using Empathy in Drug Addicts

Empathy has helped many people with their experiences, in one way or another. However, a recent study conducted by the researchers from the University of Minnesota found that empathy can have detrimental effects on some people and can push former drug users to relapse. 

Led by Dr. Jonathan Gewirtz, the researchers performed a series of tests to examine the connection between empathy, stress, and drug use. The first thing that they did was use behavioral conditioning to train a group of mice to mimic drug-seeking behavior. Eventually, the mice started to associate one with the drug treatment after repeating the treatment over the course of several days. Then, the researchers gave saline injections to a group of mice in either compartment to mimic a period of sobriety for two weeks. 

The researchers tracked a sober mouse's fear response through having witnessed another mouse in a fearful state to test the role of empathy on drug relapse. Eventually, the mouse demonstrated drug-seeking behavior in response to witnessing a traumatic event. The researchers also tried to treat them with oxytocin, a hormone that is naturally produced by the body and is important for social bonding.

Unfortunately, it just increased their fear response. Therefore, the authors have concluded that mice, and potentially people, that see a stressful experience are emotionally affected negatively and this can lead them to seek drugs. 



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