Skip to main content
Connecting with Patients Tomorrow Depends on Tonight

Connecting with Patients Tomorrow Depends on Tonight

by AthleticoLeave a Comment

Authors: Athletico and Rise Science

Inability to empathize with our patients can undermine years of training, precise diagnoses, thorough care plans, and world-class facilities. Without it, we miss key unspoken needs, fail to establish trust, and limit our ability to influence the behavior that helps patients reach their goals.

Empathy refers to the ability of an individual to understand another person’s mental state in terms of emotions, feelings, and thoughts, which is important for effective interpersonal interaction.1 It can turn a routine into a moment of genuine connection and is a true superpower in our clinical settings.

Empathy, though, is something most of us regularly limit each day – or should we say each night? Most headlines about empathy focus on listening, presence, and vulnerability – all important, but missing a critical ingredient: consistent healthy sleep.

The Link Between Sleep & Empathy

When we build up sleep debt, the cumulative effect of not getting enough sleep relative to the amount we each genetically need, we are more likely to experience negative performance impacts on tasks related to our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions.2,3,4 These tasks include the regulation of problem-solving, reasoning, and processing emotion, which is crucial to empathy. Higher sleep debt makes us more impulsive and less thoughtful in our emotional responses.

Sleep debt affects our ability to understand another’s feelings and state of mind (cognitive empathy) and our ability to share in them (emotional empathy) vicariously – the latter being important to forming solidarity and tight bonds.1 Sleep debt inhibits our ability to read facial emotions (dampening non-verbal communication), limits empathic accuracy, therefore provoking conflict, and reduces trust in others.5,6,7

In our daily practice when sleep debt limits our empathy:

  • Negativity from minor stressors and setbacks is harder to shake and surfaces very obviously in interactions with our family, friends, colleagues, and patients.
  • We fail to pick up on our patients’ unspoken needs, apprehensions, confusion, and fears because our non-verbal emotional perception is reduced. Our credibility, thoroughness, and understanding become limited–negatively affecting the wanted outcomes.
  • Our ability to trust our patients’ communicated experiences, let alone put ourselves “in their shoes,” is limited. What should be close, open relationships become transactional, impersonal, and sometimes adversarial, lacking the intimacy needed to uncover barriers and achieve goals.
  • We blunt the inspiration and influence we are capable of and rely on to lead and partner with our patients through adversity and long-haul care plans.

It’s safe to assume 70% of us struggle with sufficient sleep, perhaps even more in pandemic times.8,9 No matter how high our professional ceilings are, our capacity is often limited by our sleep.

But, there’s good news! More sleep, something that’s within our control, restores and maximizes empathy, the superpower we need in practice, and a reason physical therapy is so effective human-to-human.

“Strong clinical skills and empathy are key components to becoming an exceptional physical therapist. Evolving my understanding of empathy and focusing on the development of a therapeutic alliance has positively influenced every intervention I provide to my patients,” said Therese Southworth, PT, Vice President of Patient Journey, Athletico. “To build a true relationship, I must connect with the patient on a deeper level to help them journey toward their healthcare goals. At Athletico, this focus on empathy and compassion is critical to delivering outstanding patient experiences and clinical outcomes. When combined with a foundation in pain neuroscience, these skills can lead to extraordinary clinical results. This has not only positively impacted my patients’ experiences but also has reinvigorated my passion and purpose as a physical therapist.”

Reducing sleep debt just 8 hours can:

  • Increase our empathic response by 30%3
  • Reduce our expression of negative emotions 67%10

Tools to Get More Sleep

Of course, “get more sleep” isn’t as easy as it sounds! That’s why Athletico is partnering with Rise Science to help APTA clinicians get consistent, healthy sleep.

Rise Science is an energy management app that helps you get the amount of sleep you genetically need and make the most of life. Rise is used by professional athletes, Fortune 500 companies, and more than one million people globally. Thanks to Athletico, we invite you to try a 30-day free trial and 40% off your subscription to recharge your sleep schedule.

Get Started

To learn more about Rise Science and improving your sleep, please click here.

The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.

1. Shamay-Tsoory SG;Aharon-Peretz J;Perry. “Two Systems for Empathy: A Double Dissociation between Emotional and Cognitive Empathy in Inferior Frontal Gyrus versus Ventromedial Prefrontal Lesions.” Brain : a Journal of Neurology, U.S. National Library of Medicine,
2. “What Is Sleep Debt? the Number That Predicts How You’ll Feel.” App and Tracker For Better Sleep and Daily Energy,
3. Guadagni, Veronica, et al. “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Emotional Empathy.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 13 Aug. 2014,
4. Dam, Nick van, and Els van der Helm. “The Organizational Cost of Insufficient Sleep.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 11 Mar. 2021,
5. Van der Helm E;Gujar N;Walker MP; “Sleep Deprivation Impairs the Accurate Recognition of Human Emotions.” Sleep, U.S. National Library of Medicine,
6. Amie M. Gordon, Serena Chen. “The Role of Sleep in Interpersonal Conflict: Do Sleepless Nights Mean Worse Fights?” SAGE Journals,
7. Anderson, Clare, and David L. Dickinson. “Bargaining and Trust: The Effects of 36‐h Total Sleep Deprivation on Socially Interactive Decisions.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 14 Oct. 2009,
8. “Perceived Insufficient Rest or Sleep among Adults — United States, 2008.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
9. Simon, Clea. “Sleep Problems Becoming Risk Factor as Pandemic Continues.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 24 Apr. 2020,
10. McGlinchey, Eleanor L., et al. “Effect of Sleep Deprivation on Vocal Expression of Emotion in Adolescents and Adults.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 Sept. 2011,

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Read more health resources related to these topics:

Physical Therapy Careers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *