How to Respond with Compassion

How to Respond with Compassion


A certain type of meditation creates calm when encountering the suffering of others.

Doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, social workers—occupations like these often cause burnout, because the workers are chronically exposed to suffering and pain of other people. A new study suggests that there are ways to use compassion meditation to become less overly distressed, and thus better able to provide care.

The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, came out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It looked at compassion meditation training—a way of intentionally cultivating positive wishes to understand and relieve the suffering of others—and how it could shift habits. The good news? “People can learn a calmer and more balanced response when they see someone suffering, even when they are attending more to suffering,” wrote the lead researcher, Helen Weng. Weng is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

For the study, 24 participants were assigned to either do compassion meditation training or reappraisal training every day for two weeks. The reappraisal training group learned how to reinterpret stressful events to decrease their negative emotions. The compassion meditation training group learned to visualize people who were suffering and learned to notice their reactions to that in a calm and nonjudgmental way. Both groups did brain scans before the training as a baseline measurement.

After two weeks of the training, participants went back into the brain scan while viewing various images. Some were neutral and some were of people suffering, such as a crying child. The research team found that people who had learned compassion meditation showed less activity in areas in their brains that are usually more activated when someone is experiencing emotional distress. This calmer reaction was not seen in the group who had learned the other style of meditation.

The compassion style of meditation may be helpful for caretakers, first responders and others who need to be less reactive. Reports Weng of this type of training, “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.”

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.

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