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Health and Wellbeing

09 Apr 2019

The science of compassion

The definition of compassion is the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve it.

Although it is often confused with empathy or altruism, compassion is different, because it has the added element of having a desire to alleviate or reduce the suffering of another or oneself.

Evolutionary psychologists and scientists suggest that there is a deep evolutionary purpose to compassion. Studies show that when we feel compassion our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.

In evolutionary terms, compassion has helped us to survive and thrive.

Why is compassion good for us?

Reduces inflammation: The link between increased psychosocial stress and increased inflammation in the body is clear, with increased inflammation being linked to a range of diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

It is fascinating therefore, that studies have shown that individuals who have higher levels of self- and other-compassion experience less inflammation in the body, whereas individuals who are lower in self-compassion and compassion for others may be especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of stress.

A buffer against negative emotions: People who are self-compassionate and experience compassion for others are less likely to catastrophise negative situations, experience anxiety following a stressor and avoid challenging tasks for fear of failure.

Increased life span: Given the aforementioned positive effects on the brain and body that compassion has, including its capacity to increase psycho-physical wellbeing, and reduce stress levels, it is no surprise that being a compassionate individual could increase your lifespan.

Studies show, for example, that individuals who volunteer regularly and for large periods of time in their life live longer than those who don’t.

Cultivating compassion

The key to developing compassion in your life is to make it a daily practice. There are so many ways to do this, so here are just a few tips that can aid you in your journey towards more compassion towards yourself and others:

Make it a morning ritual: Greet each morning with a mantra/phrase/gratitude sentence or affirmation of your choice. Stating something about how grateful you are to be alive, how you will use your energy wisely to love yourself and others, and how you wish to live to your fullest potential and help others around you is a good place to start;

Commonalities practice. When you find yourself struggling to be compassionate towards someone, instead of recognising the differences between you, try to recognise what you have in common. Eg: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and grief”; and

Have an evening compassion routine: I recommend that you take a few minutes before you go to bed to reflect on your day. Think about the people you met and talked to, and how you treated them, think about your affirmation from the morning, how well did you do? What did you learn from your experiences today? What is your intention for yourself and those around before you go to sleep?

Rajna Bogdanovic - Clinical Psycholoigist

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