Research Reveals a Surprising Solution for Anxiety

How compassion can help you relieve stress.

Posted Aug 01, 2019

Dromarcos. mc billeta ,parque los reyes. 2012. Creative Commons Share alike on Wikimedia Commons
Source: Dromarcos. mc billeta ,parque los reyes. 2012. Creative Commons Share alike on Wikimedia Commons

Millions of Americans are suffering from chronic anxiety, the most common mental illness in the United States. Anxiety affects over 40 million adults and over 25% of children between 13 and 18 (Anxiety and Depression Association). Undermining our ability to function, anxiety can fill us with incessant worry, tension, nervousness, and a fearful sense of foreboding that makes us feel we are not safe.

The stresses of contemporary life contribute to our anxiety, according to neurosurgeon James R. Doty, M.D., director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Deprived of sleep by electric lights and electronic communication, and assaulted by workplace demands and the frantic pace of modern living, he says, we can experience “chronic engagement of our sympathetic nervous system, depressing our immune system, increasing our blood pressure, causing the production of inflammatory proteins, increasing our cortisol level, our epinephrine, norepinephrine, with a very deleterious effect on long-term health” (Doty, 2019).

Constant self-criticism also causes stress, according to psychologist Paul Gilbert. When you make a mistake, if you call yourself names like “stupid and “loser,” or tell yourself that you’re “not good enough,” and this harsh self-talk actually makes you feel that you are being attacked, triggering a stress reaction (Gilbert, 2009).

Emotionally, all this stress puts us in “survival mode,” destroying our peace of mind and impairing our ability to make wise decisions. Stress makes us more reactive, and more susceptible to people who try to manipulate us, both personally and politically (Doty, 2019)

A surprising solution to all this stress and anxiety is compassion, “an open-hearted way of relating to the world that responds to the suffering of others with care, kindness, and helpful action” (Neff & Seppala, 2016, p. 189). Compassion also includes self-compassion, being kind to ourselves, especially when we make mistakes, treating ourselves as we would treat a dear friend (Neff, 2011).

Research has shown that cultivating compassion for ourselves and others can relieve stress (Jazaieri et al, 2012; 2018). Compassion Cultivation Training at CCARE involves nine weekly two-hour sessions along with daily meditations at home. Researcher Thupten Jinpa’s book, A Fearless Heart (2015), describes this training, offering mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations to promote greater compassion and self-compassion.

Cultivating compassion begins with mindful breathing. Mindfully pausing to take a few slow deep breaths has been shown to cut through the stress reaction, helping us focus, relax, and act more effectively (Jinpa, 2015). In his memoir, Into the Magic Shop (2017), Dr. Doty tells how he has used this practice to focus his attention when dealing with challenging brain surgeries.

Cultivating compassion helps relieve stress by reframing the way we see the world. As Dr. Doty explains, “Just teaching people to look at the world from a different perspective, teaching people how to understand that an event is an event and that a lot of suffering is caused when you attach emotional content to the event,” can expand our perspective to relieve our stress.

Finally, realizing that we are not alone, that “everyone is suffering” transforms the way we perceive the people around us. Instead of reacting to someone’s negative remark with even more negativity, Dr. Doty explains that we can recognize “that that the manner in which someone interacts with you frequently has no relationship to you,” referring to Viktor Frankl, who said that “Our freedom is in the pause between the stimulus and the response.”

“This is where the pause comes in,” Dr. Doty says. “This is where your freedom lies. This can be very helpful,” adding that it takes time and practice to “control your natural tendencies of how you respond to aggressive people.”

Research has indicated that compassion may also be good for our health (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008). Dr. Doty says that by developing greater compassion, love, and acceptance, “You shift into your parasympathetic nervous system, the executive control function works its best, your decision-making works its best. You’re much more open, thoughtful, and inclusive.”

Compassion also makes us feel happier. We now know that caring for one another stimulates the pleasure or reward centers in our brains (Doty, 2019).

To experience greater compassion when you’re feeling stressed, you can pause to take three deep breaths, then:

  • Tell yourself that an event is just an event, that someone’s else’s negative behavior may have nothing to do with you. If your boss unexpectedly snapped at you, he may just be having a bad day. Perhaps he got a speeding ticket on the way to work.
  • Realize that everyone is suffering, even your irritable boss.
  • Pause to take a few mindful breaths and send compassion to this person with a brief loving-kindness meditation: “May you be filled with loving-kindness, may you be well, may you be free from suffering, may you be happy.”

Feel your mood and energies change.

The next time you’re feeling down, you can experience greater self-compassion by pausing for a few deep breaths, then taking these three steps recommended by psychologist Kristin Neff:

  • Mindfulness. Instead of attacking yourself, tune into your feelings. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” and name your feelings to yourself—“I feel sad. . . scared. . . hurt. . . angry. . . confused.”
  • Common humanity. Remind yourself that suffering is common to all humanity. Tell yourself, “It’s OK. No one’s perfect. Everyone makes mistakes.”
  • Kindness to yourself. Actively soothe yourself with kind words. You can even give yourself a hug, as Neff suggests, by crossing your arms over your chest and squeezing your upper arms, saying, “Poor dear, you’re really hurting right now” (2011).

Then feel your mood and energies change.

A little more compassion can make a major difference in your life. If you’re feeling anxious and stressed, can you stop, take a few deep mindful breaths, and begin feeling a deeper sense of compassion for yourself and those around you?

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This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.

References

Anxiety statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, http://ccare.stanford.edu/

Doty, J. R. Personal communication, Mountain View, California, July 10, 2019. All quotes from Dr. Doty are from this interview.

Doty, J. R. (2017). Into the magic shop: A neurosurgeon’s quest to discover the mysteries of the brain and the secrets of the heart. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.

Doty, J. R. (2017). Into the magic shop: A neurosurgeon’s quest to discover the mysteries of the brain and the secrets of the heart. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062.

Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Jazaieri, H., Jinpa, G., McGonigal, K., Rosenberg, E., Finkelstein, J., Simon-Thomas, E., Cullen, M., Doty, J., Gross, J., & Goldin, P. (2012). Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a Compassion Cultivation Training program. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 1113-1126.

Jazaieri, H., McGonigal, K., Lee, I. A., Jinpa, T., Doty, J. R., Gross, J. J., & Goldin, P. R. (2018). Altering the trajectory of affect and affect regulation: The impact of compassion training. Mindfulness, 9(1), 283-293 

Jinpa, T. (2015). A fearless heart: How the courage to be compassionate can transform our lives. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow. For more information about self-compassion, see http://www.self-compassion.org/

Neff, K., D., & Seppala, E. (2016). Compassion, Well-Being, and the Hypoegoic Self. In K. W. Brown & M. Leary (Eds), Oxford Handbook of Hypo-egoic Phenomena: Theory and Research on the Quiet Ego, (pp. 189-203). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.