Newswise — Experiencing and sharing emotions is a fundamental human experience. Empathy is the ability to understand another’s perspective and share their emotions. Recent research has found that empathy can help adolescents reduce their substance use. These results will be shared at the 46th annual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcohol (RSA) in Bellevue, Washington.

“Our capacity to understand and feel connected with others is critical for our mental, physical, and social health,” said Drew E. Winters, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “Empathy … builds a felt sense of connection and understanding of others. An example of empathy is when you see someone having an emotional reaction and you have an internal reaction approximating what it would feel like if you were in that situation. Understanding the experience of others is critical information to help guide our behavior. Lower levels of empathy have been shown to associated with engaging in behavior that is harmful to oneself and others.”

Winters will discuss his findings at the RSA meeting on Monday, 26 June 2023.

“My study is specific to adolescents in substance-use treatment,” he said. “Those that developed higher levels of empathy through treatment had steeper drops in substance use over time because of its influence on how they respond to social consequences from substance use. This finding suggests a declining level of use is due to a greater sense of connection with others, and gaining greater access to social data about the consequences of their continued use. With this data more readily available, they are motivated to change substance use.”

Winters said that social and emotional learning during youth is particularly important for those who struggle interpersonally. “Social impairments related to substance use disorders are likely bidirectional,” he observed, “meaning that substance use can influence social impairments, and social impairments can influence the severity of substance use.”

Fortunately, he added, “we can see that empathy can be cultivated, which can improve mental health and potentially motivate decreases in substance use.” Winters hopes that his research can help members of the public recognize there is a social aspect to substance abuse and see that an individual’s capacity to understand and connect with others is an important factor in the persistence of substance use.




Winters will present his findings, “Adolescent substance use outcomes in response to social consequences of use: the role of empathy,” during the RSA 2023 meeting in Bellevue, Washington on Monday, 26 June 2023. More information can be found at RSoA on Twitter @RSAposts. The author can also be reached on Twitter @drewinters.