Does Empathy Play a Role in Relapse?
Having empathy, or understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, emotions and point of view, is usually a good thing. In fact, it’s considered a key feature in normal social interaction. But could empathy also play a role in relapse for people in recovery?
Dr. Jonathan Gewirtz, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, and his team of researchers led a series of experiments to answer this very question. They used behavioral conditioning to train a group of mice to mimic drug-seeking behavior.
To test the link between empathy, stress and drug use, the researchers placed mice in a two-sided container. On one side, mice got a dose of saline (salt and water), and on the other side, morphine. Repeated over several days, the mice started associating one side with the drug. After two weeks, the mice received only saline in order to mimic a period of sobriety after addiction.
Next, the mice witnessed another mouse in a scary situation and were put back in the two-sided compartment. “Consistently, the sober mice preferentially selected the compartment that was associated with morphine, demonstrating drug-seeking behavior in response to witnessing a traumatic event,” noted the press release by the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology. The researchers also treated some of the mice with oxytocin, a hormone naturally produced in the body that’s important for social bonding. This was found to increase the fear response in the previously sober mice.
All in all, Gewirtz and his team concluded that empathy can expose mice (and potentially people) to more stress. And, not surprisingly, stress can lead to drug seeking behaviors, even after a period of sobriety.
Managing Stress and Preventing Relapse
At Seabrook, we understand that chronic stress can be a slippery slope into relapse. We also know that a relapse prevention plan is a critical part of maintaining sobriety. Don’t ever feel that you’ve slipped too far from recovery to return to addiction treatment — we’re here to support you every step of the journey. To learn more, call: 800-761-7575.