Compassion: Antidote to Toxic Stress

compassion

Watching or listening to the news has become more difficult lately, particularly as we see friends, family, or even strangers suffer. This likely has implications for many professions (physicians, first responders, caregivers), but everyone can become distressed, even burned out, when witnessing the pain of others.

But new work out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds that “compassion training” can improve well-being of those who practice this exercise, and has a broad and wide-ranging ripple effect for the long term.

Why does this matter?  We know the effect stress has on us and more recently, toxic and prolonged stress has been proven to damage not only brain development, but has a devastating impact on long-term physical and mental health, increasing risks of negative behaviors and shortening lifespans.

Findings published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology note that compassion meditation training provides people with a calmer and more balanced response when they see or engage with someone who is suffering. Subjects were divided into 2 groups; those who practiced compassion meditation and those who practiced “reframing” this situation (thinking they were observing an actor pretending to suffer).

The compassion meditation group was trained to visualize people when they were suffering and practice noticing their own personal reactions in a calm and nonjudgmental way (wishing the person to be happy and not suffering). Focusing on a loved one, on themselves, on a stranger, and on someone with whom they had conflict, they also practiced caring for and wishing to help the other person. In this way, practicing compassion meditation was like exercising a muscle by gradually increasing the “weight” of the relationship with each person considered.

Through a variety of measures, the researchers found that those who practiced compassion meditation became calmer and more empathetic in the face of suffering, displaying less emotional distress than those who did not:

The pattern of these findings “looking at suffering while simultaneously down-regulating neural circuits associated with negative emotion” is a combination that may be beneficial for a wide range of conditions including autism and social anxiety disorder in which social discomfort are hallmark signs, note the study co-authors.

Compassion is one of many leadership skills girls learn through Chrysalis After-School, and a special trait we work on with high school mentors.  It’s about an intent to contribute to the well-being of others, and it supports teamwork and trust. It also helps girls be less self-focused, less judgmental, and less self-destructive.

We can all model a bit more compassion as we teach girls and young women to interpret and respond to stress in a healthier ways.

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