Scientists have found when you feel compassion, your heart rate slows down, you release a hormone called Oxycontin that promotes bonding, and the part of your brain involved in care and pleasure is activated. You are then motivated to care for and help others. Compassion also increases resilience to stress and boosts the immune system to accelerate healing.
You can train yourself to be more and more compassionate with practice--it’s not a fixed trait, but more like a muscle. Researchers at Emory University have found people who did a compassion training course had greater levels of compassion and lower levels of stress hormones in their blood and saliva.
Self-compassion in particular trumps self-esteem. Research by Kristin Neff found that people with high self-esteem could end up in traps like narcissism, self- righteous anger, prejudice, and self-absorption. Consider those who have high self- esteem and see themselves as high achievers. This self-image can cause them to believe they are above others, and their arrogance comes at a cost: when things go wrong in life, their self-esteem naturally drops as their self-image as superior crumbles. This is a stressful way to live.
Self-compassion, in contrast, is about being kind to yourself and seeing your imperfection as human. With this tendency, you’ll refrain from criticizing yourself and not be vulnerable to seeing yourself as worth less when things go wrong. You'll have greater resilience against future life challenges and therefore lower levels of stress.
I experienced self-esteem issues myself. For example, when I was a high school student, I was top in the class. My sense of self-esteem was high, built on my academic achievements. But in university, I never achieved the highest grade in the class. The more I tried, the more frustrated I got. I felt low and wanted to give up. By good fortune, I discovered mindfulness halfway through my studies. I learned the value of self-compassion and finished my studies successfully without pushing myself too hard.
Other fascinating recent studies have found compassion to heal, but empathy to hurt. Empathy is a way to feel other people’s suffering but can lead to emotional burnout. For example, health professionals or caregivers can become distressed themselves and suffer greatly. Empathy activates areas in the brain associated with unpleasant feelings like sadness and pain. Compassion is very different. Compassion activates the more warm and caring parts of the brain, like a loving mother toward her crying baby.
World-renowned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has been collaborating with Tania Singer, neuroscientist and Director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute. Preliminary findings suggest those in the helping professions should do compassion training to help protect them from burnout.
Shamash Alidina - extract from his book ‘The Mindful Way through Stress’.