Feeling Stressed, Anxious, and Alone?

Compassion can make a difference.

Posted Oct 28, 2017

Chronic stress undermines compassion, making us indifferent to the people around us. It narrows our focus to basic survival, distorting our ability to see, hear, and understand the people around us, sabotaging our relationship with ourselves and others. It weakens our cognitive capacity, undermining our ability to solve problems. And today, one in five Americans experiences chronic stress, which can lead to panic attacks, anxiety, depression, gastrointestinal problems, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, stroke, heart attack, chronic fatigue, dementia, and a long list of addictive behaviors (ADAA, NIMH, American Institute of Stress).   

Pink Lotus Blossom/ by Frank Baldessari/ Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License on Wikimedia Commons
Source: Pink Lotus Blossom/ by Frank Baldessari/ Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License on Wikimedia Commons

Yet if stress shuts down our capacity for compassion, meditation can help bring it back. In a Boston experiment (Condon, Desbordes, Miller, & DeSteno, 2013), researchers assigned 39 young men and women from the greater community to one of three conditions for eight weeks: 1) a mindfulness meditation course, 2) a compassion meditation course, or 3) a wait-list control. At the end of the eight-week period, participants were told to come to the lab for follow-up testing. One at a time, each participant entered the waiting room outside the lab where there were three chairs, with two women confederates in two of them. The participant sat in the empty chair. In a few minutes, a young woman limped in on crutches. She sighed, winced in pain, and leaned against the wall. The two women confederates remained seated, unresponsive to her suffering. The participants’ compassion was tested by whether or not they offered their seats to the woman on crutches. One confederate would notify the experimenters about this with a text message. In two minutes, the experimenter opened the lab door, and the actual experiment was ended, although participants took a short series of unrelated tests.

Remarkably, the meditators demonstrated significantly greater compassion, offering their chairs to the suffering woman more than five times more often than the controls. The participants’ gender made no difference nor did the form of meditation involved—results were the same for those in both the mindfulness and compassion classes.

What does this tell us? That a regular meditation practice does more than make us feel good. It is not only good for us individually, reducing stress and improving our health and peace of mind (see Shapiro & Carlson, 2009), but good for us collectively, increasing our compassion, building community (see Dreher, 2015), helping us overcome the anxiety and alienation in our world.


American Institute of Stress:

Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA): 

Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24, 2125-2127.

Dreher, D. E. (2015). Leading with compassion: A moral compass for our time. In T. G. Plante (Ed.). The psychology of compassion and cruelty: Understanding the emotional, spiritual, and religious influences (pp. 73-87). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO

National Institute of Mental Health:

Shapiro, S. L. & Carlson. (2009). The art and science of mindfulness. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.​