At heart, compassion is kindness in response to the pain and suffering that we all experience sooner or later. And despite what some have argued, humans are wired for it.
Practicing compassion benefits us in myriad ways — and we can train ourselves to be more compassionate toward others and ourselves.
The Compassionate Brain
Our brains are built to respond to the pain of others. Brain-imaging studies have shown that when participants view pictures of someone suffering, their amygdalae, part of the brain’s threat-detection system, light up.
Notably, the same area lights up when we are in pain ourselves. When we see pain in others, it’s like an empathy alarm goes off: I see your pain. I understand it. I can even sort of feel it.
During a moment of empathy, the part of the brain connected to pleasure also activates, triggered by the hormone dopamine. This means we also receive a reward to calm the stress response and slow the heart rate, priming us to approach the person suffering rather than respond to the original fight-or-flight signal.
At this point, compassion is about to shout. This happens when your pituitary gland releases oxytocin — the love hormone — to help prompt our caregiving behaviors.
In other words, when we see or hear about suffering, we’re wired to detect it. We feel the stress of it first and then empathize with it. This prompts us to respond with kindness. When we do, even if it’s just with a compassionate thought, our system rewards us.
That said, just because we’re primed to act with compassion doesn’t mean we always do — or if we do, that we always know how to respond without wearing ourselves out.
The volume of difficulty we face today is testing the limits of our ability to respond without becoming depleted. And this can lead to compassion fatigue.
This occurs when our response system is being activated nonstop —and it’s not uncommon in those who deal with people in crisis situations day after day.
Each of these crises pings our brain’s compassion-response system. Threat detection, stress response, empathy — again and again, on an endless loop. When there’s so much incoming that we can’t calm our system with caregiving behaviors, or even a compassionate thought, we enter a chronic state of stress.
Many of us may suffer from this, but it may stem from a slight misunderstanding of compassion. We often think of compassion as suffering with another, or carrying their burden with them, or just feeling bad because they’re feeling bad. Sometimes there’s even a sense of responsibility or guilt thrown in.
All of this is potentially depleting, and it doesn’t quite reflect the wisdom of true compassion: that we are both connected and separate.
We may think that if we can’t do much to address someone’s suffering, there’s no reason to do anything. That’s not true.
A study out of Johns Hopkins University involving a group of cancer patients found, unsurprisingly, that compassionate care significantly improved anxiety levels for patients.
But here’s the surprise: The intervention the study used took just 40 seconds. It simply involved caregivers communicating their compassion: validating the challenge a patient was experiencing and assuring them that the caregiver would support them throughout their treatment.
None of these interventions involved the practitioners taking on the suffering of their patients. The caregivers could be there for them without being them.
Remember: just a tiny act, 40 seconds. Try starting with once a day, once a week. At the very least, such acts can calm our nervous systems.
When you feel like you to want to close yourself off from the pain and suffering that might be inside or around you, or when you feel totally overwhelmed by it, wise compassion offers up a different choice. It starts with an acknowledgment: This is how things are.
When we can accept and turn toward whatever is before us, offering whatever small kindness we can, we can open ourselves to grief and loss without letting it overwhelm us.
These little gestures make a big difference.
This article originally appeared as “Compassionate by Nature” in the June 2023 issue of Experience Life.