Compassion training helps reduce distress
When you witness someone suffering or going through a hard time you feel compassion — a sense of caring for them and helping them through their challenge. This can also feel distressing for you to watch. But what if there was a way to reduce the distress you feel when you see someone suffering? The answer lies in compassion meditation training, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Their brain scans showed less activity in the amygdala, insula and orbitofrontal cortex — areas of the brain that are more active when experiencing emotional distress.
According to this new study, just two weeks of compassion meditation training is needed to reduce distress and improve the ability to respond with compassion. Compassion meditation training involves intentionally nurturing positive wishes to understand and relieve the suffering of others.
Twenty-four participants were randomly assigned and trained to do either 30 minutes of compassion meditation or reappraisal training. Reappraisal training involved re-interpreting personally stressful events to decrease negative emotions. The participants did this every day for two weeks.
The compassion meditation group practised cultivating feelings of compassion for different people — loved ones, the self, a stranger and a difficult person they had conflict with. They were trained to visualise them when they were suffering and practised noticing their own personal reactions in a calm and nonjudgmental way. They also practised caring for and wishing to help the other person by repeating compassion-generating phrases and visualising a golden light extending from their heart to the heart of the other person.
Both groups received brain scans before they were trained and after two weeks of practise to determine whether compassion meditation made it easier for those trained to look at a suffering person. As humans are visually attentive, looking at someone is the first thing to do to determine if they’re in need.
While in a brain scanner, participants were shown neutral images of strangers as well as emotionally charged images of people suffering — like a burn victim or a crying child. They were instructed to react to the images as they normally would and to make use of their new training. This was also done before the two weeks of training and then after the training.
The researchers found that participants in the compassion meditation training group showed compassion towards people in the images, having thoughts like: “May this person be happy and free from suffering.” But the reappraisal group re-evaluated the situation with thoughts like: “This person is an actor and isn’t really suffering.”
The researchers used eye-tracking techniques to track where people spent the most time looking at each image — whether it was on areas of the image that were more negative such as the faces of those suffering — or on less emotionally charged parts of the image. They also compared this to how much time each participant looked at the socially relevant areas of neutral images, like the face of a person walking down the street.
The researchers found that the people who had practiced compassion meditation tended to look more directly at suffering in the negative images compared to the neutral photos. Their brain scans showed less activity in the amygdala, insula and orbitofrontal cortex — areas of the brain that are more active when experiencing emotional distress. This was not seen in the reappraisal group.
Compassion meditation slows things down and helps people be less reactive and more calm when faced with others’ pain and distress, as they have the opportunity to focus on the other person and respond to them with loving kindness. This study has positive implications for people who work routinely with others who are suffering like doctors, law enforcement officers and first responders who often experience high levels of distress and emotional burnout from being in these situations. Compassion meditation can help anyone respond to those who are suffering in a more calm and balanced manner and reduce the distress they feel.
Source: Frontiers in Psychology
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