One of the most prominent issues that we see at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine is depression, followed closely by anxiety. The qualities that these two experiences share is that when in the throes of depression and anxiety people are consumed with their own pain and fear and find it really difficult to engage and participate in the world. Perhaps, this is why many of our therapeutic interventions are geared toward enlivening compassion for others. Indeed, one of my favorite crisis intervention techniques from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) incorporates giving back to others. So in this blog we are going to look at compassion and the gifts that it has to offer us in our lives.
Compassion is defined as the feeling that emerges when we witness another’s suffering and are motivated to do something about it. Evolutionary theory posits that compassion emerged as an affective state because it enhances the survival of vulnerable offspring, it is a desirable trait in mate selection and it enhances cooperation among non-kin (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas, 2010). In sum, compassion is not just a “feel good, do good” emotion, it evolved specifically to support our ability to survive as a species.
The experience of compassion, according to self-report research, feels like tenderness, warmth, moved, or softhearted (Baston et al., 1987). It is characterized by caregiving and approach behaviors which can be observed in the responses of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for fight or flight responses as well as approach and caregiving responses. When one is experiencing compassion, heart rate decreases and vagus nerve activity, which is thought to regulate attachment and social behavior in mammals, increases. Given that the physiological experience of compassion directly contrasts the physiology of anxiety and depression, it makes sense activating this response may be effective in providing relief from negative mood states.
Compassion has many benefits for both individuals and society as a whole. On an individual level there is evidence to suggest that compassion has several physical health benefits including lowered blood pressure and improved immune functions (Diener & Seligman, 2004). A recent study also found that people who were happy because their lives were filled with meaning or purpose, also called eudaimonic happiness, had lower levels of inflammation than people who described themselves as happy because of “living the good life,” (Fredrickson et al., 2013).
Practicing compassion can also play a role in reducing depression and improving relationships within your community as well as with those people closest in your life (Gilbert and Proctor, 2006). Anxiety and depression involves intensive self-focus while compassion serves to connect us with others, help us live in line with our values and helps us to see that we, as humans, all have some degree of pain to live through. It might be interesting to experiment with intentionally acting in ways that are compassionate. Below are a couple of exercises to try:
Ways to Cultivate Compassion in Your Own Life:
- Random Acts of Kindness – This exercise is drawn from the Science of Happiness Course, a free online educational opportunity.
- Choose a day of the week perform five acts of kindness. These can be large or small, applied to different people and anonymous if you wish. Varying these acts works best.
- Write down what you did and how it made you feel
- Loving Kindness Meditation – The Lovingkindness meditation is designed to cultivate an open heart towards ourselves and those around us. Click here for a link to a script.
Dr. Angela Williams is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine. She specializes in cognitive-behavioral and humanistic/existential approaches to therapy. She has extensive training in Brief Crisis Intervention, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Her therapeutic style blends strength-based acceptance with practical skill development. Incorporating mindfulness-based interventions, she helps her clients move through difficult experiences and be more present in their lives.
Baston, C.D., Fultz, J., & Schoenrade, P. A. (1987). Distress and empathy: Two qualitatively distinct vicarious emotions with different motivational consequences. Journal of Personality, 55: 19-39.
Diener, E., & Seligman, E. P. (2004.) Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5 (1): 1-31.
Fredrickson, B. L., Grewen, K. M., Coffey, K. A., Algoe, S. B., Firestine, A. M., Arevalo, J. M. G., Ma, J., & Cole, S. W. (2013). A functional genomic perspective on well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110 (33): 13684-13689.
Gilbert, P., & Procter, S. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: Overview and pilot stud of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 13 (6): 353-379.
Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An Evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136 (3): 351-374.