The Alchemy of Empathy—Transforming Stress into Meaning - Eve Ekman -

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The Alchemy of Empathy—Transforming Stress into Meaning – Eve Ekman

What makes us genuinely happy? Connecting with other people is a very reliable source of enjoyment. Even when bad things happen, we can still have a sense of meaning when we connect with other people—a wonderful way empathy can transform.

Empathy can also lead to stress. In stressful environments the energy can motivate us, but people’s anxiety can also transmit (emotional contagion).

  • Stress can lead us to burnout.
  • The natural byproduct of emotional intelligence is actually stress-reduction.

What are Emotions?

Emotions are functional response systems. They respond to important things happening. We evolved to have them so we would respond before we could think. We have emotions before we even think about our responses.

Some emotions are expressed on your face, emerging from external and internal stimulus. Event happening to you (external), remembering the incident (internal). Both stimulus are very much the same.

  • Emotions are felt inside the body—used for communication. Facial signals communicate a lot.
  • Emotions last for about two minutes; moods last longer. Emotional feelings that persist are actually being retriggered (repeated stimulus).
  • Being cut off in traffic makes us angry, leaves us open to find more things to be angry about, persisting the emotion and can lead to a mood.

Emotion Regulation

Reappraisal: “I’m feeling an emotion that’s difficult right now.” That’s reappraisal, being aware of your emotion as it arrives. Just being aware of a stressful situation can result in less emotional arousal.

Suppression: suppress our own experience, give ourselves a little bit of a time out. Wait for the appropriate time to respond. Sometimes that can be a reappraisal, just being aware of our emotions, but often, we actually have to suppress what we’re feeling.

Stress Experiences

Every time you feel stress you are fueling an emotion, and the most sustainable way to manage stress is to build emotional awareness. From a research point of view, there is little difference between stress and emotion. There is a stress that makes us perform well. When we are doing our best work, the intention to do a good job. We think that what we’re doing matters.

Stress and Cognitive Appraisal Model by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman

Key Points: 

  • Having enough resources to meet our demands = challenge-spaced stress mode (optimal performance).
  • Not having enough resources + other emotional stress (family, etc.)= fight or freeze stress (also motivating, but is exhausting in the long-run).

Resources can be the following: emotional awareness, intelligence – emotional and otherwise, sleep, physical wellness, training, education, support from our coworkers, colleagues and friends, autonomy. When the resources don’t meet the demand, there’s a lack.


Empathy is both our emotional resonance and our appraisal. In empathy there’s either our capacity to have a real concern, a compassionate concern for others, one that is informed by truly seeing that person and knowing what they need, or we are distressed. Like, “Oh, my God. That person is upset. What do I do?”

  • This is also the formula for burnout (taking on too much emotional burden by being empathetic to everyone).
  • If you can really tune into what’s happening to them and act in a compassionate way, it will not lead to burnout.
  • When you feel empathy you can feel meaning or distress.
  • Emotional exhaustion causes us to withdraw from our work, preventing us from meaning.

What makes life bearable, even when it’s very stressful? Its this feeling of what we do matters, and it’s meaningful.

Ask yourself these questions

“Where are those emotions coming from? What are my common triggers? What are my behavioral patterns? What is it that I think the world owes to me, or that I owe to the world?”

You’re influencing your world perspective simply by paying attention to your emotions.

  • “Paying attention to the present moment without making a judgment.”
  • Mindfulness of emotions is being aware of our emotions as they arise, being mindful of our emotions.
  • We have to develop the stability of mind. There are no shortcuts. Awareness of self, awareness of others, awareness of our triggers and our scripts, what lead to our emotions? What are our common patterns and also our worldview–an understanding that our emotions are not who we are, even when we’re in the deepest grip of our anger?

It’s really important to be aware every day of the emotions you experience, which ones they are, what they feel like, how long they last and who’s involved. This is mastering your self-awareness and this is the building block upon which we develop emotional intelligence.