An ancient meditation practise that teaches kindness could help combat stress, according to new research.
The study suggests that it helps people become calmer in the face of suffering – and may benefit conditions ranging from social anxiety disorder to autism.
The technique involved compassion meditation – which has its roots in Tibetan Buddhism – and was effective with only two weeks training.
It engenders happiness by creating feelings of kindness through repeating phrases such as ‘may you be happy and healthy’ while visualising a particular person.
The study found it reduced activity in the amygdala, insula and orbitofrontal cortex when participants were shown images of suffering.
These are areas of the brain usually triggered during emotional distress – and can lead to a withdrawal response and averted gaze.
Compassion meditation – also known as loving-kindness meditation – has previopusly been found to reduce racial prejudice.
The latest findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, could have implications for professions in which people routinely work with others who are suffering.
This includes doctors, law enforcement officers and first responders who experience high levels of distress or empathic burnout.
Professor Helen Weng, of California University, San Francisco, said: “Compassion meditation may shift habits of becoming overly distressed when we encounter another’s pain.
“People can learn a calmer and more balanced response when they see someone suffering – even when they are attending more to suffering.”
She likened it to strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby – enabling us to train ourselves to be more compassionate and calm in the face of others’ suffering.
In the study 24 volunteers were randomly assigned to do either 30 minutes of compassion meditation every day for a fortnight or another technique called reappraisal training.
This is aimed at re-interpreting personally stressful events to reduce unpleasant emotions.
The compassion meditation group was trained to visualise people when they were suffering and practice noticing their own personal reactions in a calm and non-judgmental way.
Focusing on a loved one, on themselves, on a stranger, and on someone with whom they had conflict, they also practiced caring for and wishing to help the other person.
In this way, practicing compassion meditation was like exercising a muscle by gradually increasing the “weight” of the relationship with each person considered.
Both groups received brain scans before and afterwards to see if compassion meditation made it easier to actually look at a suffering person.
Humans are visually attentive as a species and looking at someone is a critical first step in determining if they’re in need.
Prof Weng, who conducted the study while she was a student at Wisconsin-Madison University, said: “Your eyes are a window into what you care about.
“We wanted to know: Does looking more at suffering in the mind’s eye translate into looking more at suffering out in the real world, and can this be done with less distress?”
While in the scanner the participants viewed neutral images of strangers as well as emotionally evocative ones of people suffering — like a burn victim or crying child.
They were instructed to react to the images as they normally would and to make use of their new training.
For instance, people in the compassion training group practiced compassion toward individuals in the images, having thoughts like: “May this person be happy and free from suffering.”
The reappraisal group reframed the situation: “This person is an actor and isn’t really suffering.”
The researchers used eye-tracking techniques to record where people spent the most time gazing at each image, whether it was on areas of the image that were more negative – such as the faces of those in suffering – or on less emotionally charged parts of the image.
They also compared this to how much time each participant looked at the socially relevant areas of neutral images – like the face of a person walking down the street.
The reappraisal group did not show the same changes in the amygdala, insula and orbitofrontal cortex.
The people who had practiced compassion meditation also tended to look more directly at suffering in the negative images relative to the neutral photos.
Prof Weng said: “We communicate a lot with our eyes and this research suggests compassion training has an impact on the body and can actually shift where you direct your visual attention when you see others in pain.”
Compassion meditation slows things down so people can practice being more calm, notice the feelings that arise and learn to be less reactive.
Prof Weng said: “This gives you more mental space to focus on the other person, to practice wishing kindness and wanting them to be well, and I think both parts are really important for effectively responding to people suffering.”
Compassion meditation could also be used as a strategy for working with people with conditions that affect how comfortable they are making eye contact with others,
Co-author Dr Richard Davidson, founder of the Centre for Healthy Minds at Wisconsin-Madison University, said: “The pattern of these findings – an increase in looking at suffering while simultaneously down-regulating neural circuits associated with negative emotion – is a winning combination that may be beneficial for a wide range of conditions including autism and social anxiety disorder in which gaze aversion and social discomfort are hallmark signs.”
By Ben Gelblum and Mark Waghorn