When Bad Things Happen

Crisis is an unavoidable fact of life. Whether it happens to us, through us or around us, we all encounter crisis at some point in time. Our nervous system’s natural response to a threat is to fight, flight, freeze or appease (people-pleasing to maintain supportive connection). Particularly when we observe crises happening around us, our body tends to move into the flight or freeze mode. We may avoid anything that could possibly feel remotely dangerous or we may feel stuck in a state of low level anxiety, not knowing how to feel safe in our bodies (or our communities).

At our best, we can move through these initial states in a place of compassion. When this happens, we live and work for the good of those around us, contributing to society instead of isolating from it out of fear. How do we respond to crisis in a compassionate way?  We begin with a definition of the core tenants of compassion — and we move to a deeper understanding of how compassion is beneficial for both the giver and the recipient.

Compassion Defined

Compassion is defined as the recognition of another’s suffering and a desire to alleviate that suffering. Compassion is a process. It requires us to, first of all, pay attention, because when we are preoccupied with our own lives we won’t enter this process at all. Based on research of existing definitions of compassion, it consists of five elements: recognizing suffering, understanding the universality of human suffering, feeling for the person suffering, tolerating uncomfortable feelings, and motivation to act/acting to alleviate suffering. 

Our brains are hard wired to experience compassion, but it doesn’t always look the way we imagine. When we first experience compassion, an interesting thing happens in the brain. Our distress/threat circuitry lights up.  Scientists call this interaction “empathetic distress”. This is the point in which we start to feel a bit of pain for someone else.

Unfortunately, many of us get stuck in empathetic distress. When research scientists have studied compassion, they find that there is a process that unfolds as we are moved to compassion… but that process can collapse at different points along the way.  Staying stuck in empathetic distress is not only unhelpful for society but it’s not good for us either— we just continue to walk around feeling anxious and avoidant with no alleviation of that distress.

Why do we do this? A number of things can collapse the compassion process. We may minimize the crisis by telling ourselves, “Oh it’s not really that bad.” We may catastrophize the crisis by assuming, “It’s so bad there’s nothing I can do to help.”   We may have biases that keep us from engaging or we may begin to blame others.  Blaming is our mind’s way of shifting responsibility off us because we either don’t know what to do or we don’t think we are capable of doing anything. If blaming is an attempt to shift responsibility, we can avoid blaming by identifying appropriate responses. We may ask ourselves, “I can’t change other’s actions but what is my responsibility right now at this moment? How can I be a source of compassion in a hurting world?”

Benefits of Compassion

Compassion is not just good for others, it’s beneficial to us as well.  Merging faith and psychology, we find that God actually created our bodies to operate at their best when we are showing compassion. When we hear that “compassion is good for the heart”, it’s not strictly in the metaphorical sense. Compassion has the capacity to heal our physical hearts as we move to help heal others. Our bodies produce a hormone called oxytocin when we show compassion, and our physical hearts have built-in receptors for oxytocin. When oxytocin levels are high (when we are feeling and experiencing compassion), our heart receptors take in the oxytocin. One healing effect of oxytocin is heart cell regeneration and renewal from any damage that may have occurred.  Oxytocin also serves as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. It’s called the cuddle hormone because it’s released by touch as well— and it helps us feel connected to whatever is right in front of us. 

Compassion Isn’t Easy

Sometimes we idealize compassion.  We think it’s supposed to be a warm fuzzy feeling, all the time. This misconception is dangerous because when we have that expectation about compassion and it doesn’t feel that way, we bail.  Compassionate people are some of the most grittiest, tough and determined individuals because they are willing to enter into the empathetic distress and move through it, beyond the fear and uncertainty and self-doubt, into action.

Brain studies of individuals experiencing compassion show that there are multiple areas of the brain being activated when someone feels compassion. There’s an area of distress lit up but there’s also the area of hope activated. When you are experiencing compassion and have a sense of connection to suffering, either your own or someone else’s, scientists see a very strong neural response connected to hope.

Next time you encounter the pain and suffering of another, remind yourself that you have a choice to engage in the compassion process. It may seem easier to avoid or ignore, but you’ll miss the opportunity to heal your own heart as you move toward healing others. Sure, it’s possible to live an easy life without deeper purpose, but taking a risk to enter into a state of compassion will bring depths of hope, connection and healing that may not have been attained otherwise.