Study Shows that Building Compassion is Key to Resilience

What if, just like strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate and calm in the face of others' suffering? This is the question that researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison posed in a recent study, titled “Visual Attention to Suffering After Compassion Training Is Associated With Decreased Amygdala Responses.” And their findings suggest that as little as two weeks of compassion meditation training can alter the way people respond to the suffering of others.

While this research has obvious applications for first responders, law enforcement and others who are exposed to suffering regularly, it could also affect the rest of us who struggle with the many challenging issues in the world today. From war-torn in Syria and immigrant children separated from their parents to unexpected trauma in our own lives, it’s hard to remain resilient.

Resilience, the ability to skillfully cope with adversity, challenge and crisis, is essential to our emotional well-being. It enables us to recover from trauma of any kind—small struggles or life-changing changes. It also helps us respond empathetically to others in need (as opposed to averting our gaze, panicking or losing hope).

In the study, 24 participants practiced either 30 minutes of compassion meditation or reappraisal training (reframing personally stressful events to diminish negative emotions) once a day for two weeks.

The compassion meditation group practiced what’s commonly called a loving-kindness meditation, a simple meditation that involves directing well wishes and compassion toward other people (as well as ourselves). This powerful practice typically focuses inward with ourselves initially, then moves to loved ones and finally toward people we don’t know. This kind of meta loving-kindness meditation is a little like exercising a muscle, gradually increasing the “weight” in terms of the relationships as our compassion expands.

Before and after the two-week training, all of the participants received brain scans. In the scanner, they viewed both evocative images of people suffering and neutral images of people. Participants were told to apply their training, so those who had learning loving kindness directed compassion toward the individuals, such thoughts as "May this person be happy and free from suffering," while the reappraisal group remade the situation by thinking, "This person is an actor and isn't really suffering."

Results came via eye-tracking technology, which noted where people focused on an image, whether it was looking at the least emotionally charged areas of images or directly at the person suffering, and for how long. This time was compared to the time spent looking at the socially relevant areas (i.e. faces) in the neutral photos.
Because the group that practiced loving-kindness meditation tended to look more directly at the images with suffering and also showed less activity in the areas of the brain associated with emotional distress, results suggest that compassion training could help people be more compassionate and calm in the face of suffering.

Would you like to strengthen your own resilience by building more compassion? Start with this 10-minute loving-kindness meditation with Search Inside Yourself teacher Meg Levie: