Compassion helps us to foster better relationships with others, assure their cooperation, and provide better care, but it does not end there. The ability to have compassion for ourselves also have a profound effect on our own well-being and mental health. Experts have shown that our heart rate slows down when we are compassionate and that oxytocin, a natural biochemical known as the “bonding hormone,” is released. When we feel compassionate, the brain areas connected to pleasurable feelings are also activated, and we feel content and relaxed.
This particular theory of mind is related to building and maintaining healthy social relationships, learning effectively, and be a valuable part of the recovery and health of others too. Mindfulness, the state of mind and attitude that we have explored in depth in the previous module, contribute significantly to develop and nurture empathy and compassion for the self and others. The different factors of this process are as follows.
Self-Acceptance. When we practice mindfulness, we are likely to develop a more accepting attitude towards ourselves. We tend to challenge self-limiting and negative beliefs about ourselves and as a result, treat ourselves more compassionately, which also translates to others.
Interconnectedness. Through mindfulness, we develop a greater sense of connection with the world outside of ourselves. This interdependence results in more openness and a better understanding and, therefore, increased compassion toward ourselves and others.
Keeping calm. By relieving anxiety and promoting a greater sense of well-being, mindfulness alleviates feelings of stress and overwhelm which keep us focused on ourselves. Freed from such anxious constraints, we can be both more empathetic and
Emotional control. The anxiety that can come from observing someone in distress can also inhibit compassionate action. By giving us better control over our own emotions, mindfulness protects us from becoming overwhelmed when we are facing someone’s pain (or our own). Because of this better emotional control, we can better tap into our resources and follow our instincts to help and care for others.
Healthier boundaries. Mindfulness also help us develop healthier emotional boundaries, protecting us from becoming over-involved in our own or another person’s pain and thus being in a better position not to just feel compassionate but offer practical While we can still empathize, we are not distressed and overwhelmed.
Greater focus. By developing attention, mindfulness helps our minds to stay focused when facing suffering. It prevents the mind from getting distracted and thereby inhibiting those biological systems that make compassion possible.
Less distraction. There is evidence that mindfulness meditation deactivates what is called the Default Mode Network, a brain structure responsible for “housekeeping” that keeps our minds busy on the routine, taking away our energy and attention. Deactivating this network allows us to be more aware and focused on ourselves and others.
Brain plasticity. Other neuroscientific studies are suggesting structural changes that facilitate compassion. In a classic study, the areas of the brain involved in attention and emotional integration increased in volume in meditators. Research has also shown that mindfulness meditation increases the volume of the hippocampus, a structure critical for memory and learning and that the amygdala, an area responsible for mediating anxiety and the emotional part of the fight-flight response, shrinks with meditation practice.