Compassion Training Surpasses Empathy Training to Reduce Stress

Susanne Leiberg

Susanne Leiberg

Compassion training has positive effects on mood and health, and University of Zurich’s Susanne Leiberg, Olga Klimecki, Tania Singer demonstrated that it can actually change the brain’s functioning, and related emotions and behaviors.

Olga Klimecki

Olga Klimecki

Klimecki, Leiberg, Singer, now at Max Planck Institute collaborated with Claus Lamm of University of Vienna to examine the impact of compassion training on brain activity in response to observing another person’s distress.

Tania Singer

Tania Singer

A frequent experience in daily life, most people experience distress, or empathy, when observing another’s distress, due to activation of the brain’s “mirror” neurons.

Claus Lamm

Claus Lamm

In contrast, compassion is concern with others’ suffering coupled with the desire to alleviate the other person’s pain, and can exist without actually experiencing the other persons’ distress through empathy.

The researchers evaluated whether personal distress be transformed into compassion, a useful coping strategy for those in health care professions, and in caretaking roles.
They developed the Socio-affective Video Task to measure neural and subjective responses to witnessing the distress of others.

Most volunteers experienced initial empathic negative feelings and activations in the brain’s pain empathy areas, the anterior insula and anterior medial cingulate cortex, when they observed the distress of others.
However, the volunteers who completed compassion training experienced less negative emotion, and more positive feelings when witnessing others in distress, related to increased activity in brain areas associated with positive emotion and affiliation:  the medial orbitofrontal cortex, putamen, pallidum, and ventral tegmental area.

In contrast, control group volunteers who received memory training did not have more positive emotions, and participants in empathy training actually experienced more negative feelings.

The studies suggest that compassion training can be an effective coping strategy when observing or supporting others in distress, and the mental discipline of compassion training can increase positive emotion more effectively than memory training or empathy training.

Besides changing the brain and related feelings, compassion training triggered more “prosocial” behavior, including helping and cooperating.

This researcher team developed the Zurich Prosocial Game (ZPG) to validly assess helping behaviors in light of reciprocity, helping cost, and distress cues influences.
Volunteers who had received short-term compassion training increased their helping behaviors in the game, but this was not true for volunteers who received short-term memory training.

Charles Raison

Charles Raison

Emory University’s Charles Raison advocated compassion training as a better day to deal with “enemies,” whether globally or interpersonally.
He collaborated with Emory colleagues including Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, who developed Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) and Sheetal Reddy of Atlanta’s Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, to evaluate the impact of compassion training with youth in foster care.

Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi

Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi

The team considered whether these participants, who had suffered maltreatment, experienced improved psychosocial functioning after twice-weekly Cognitive-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) for six weeks compared with young people assigned to the “wait-list-no treatment” group.

Researchers found no difference in measured functioning, but young people who practiced compassion more frequently reported greater hopefulness and ability to deal with life stressors, and decreased generalized anxiety.

These findings suggest that compassion training can improve stress management, mood, and cooperation.

-*How have you seen compassion training affect feelings and behaviors?

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7 thoughts on “Compassion Training Surpasses Empathy Training to Reduce Stress

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