The Neuroscience of Building Compassion and Resilience
How the lessons of neuroscience can help us build compassion and resilience when facing challenges.
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As a practicing psychiatrist, I am often asked if I see an uptick of anxiety and depression since the 2016 election. My answer is, without hesitation, yes. The overall culture of negativity and uncertainty has affected many Americans in insidious ways. The divisive political environment subtly infuses us with fear and uncertainty of the future. The angry tweets, the hiring and firing of cabinet members and other high ranking officials, and the constant warnings of the dangers abroad, ignite a range of emotions. We can look to neuroscience to understand how these modern day triggers dismantle a rational mind.
The main culprit is a powerful nucleus located in the depth of the temporal lobe of our brain, otherwise known as the amygdala. The amygdala is an almond shaped group of neurons that act as a switchboard for anxiety. Once we identify something in our environment as a threat, the amygdala signals the rest of our brain to prepare our body to protect itself. The amygdala activates hormones, body organs, and muscles that govern the fight or flight response. The heart beats faster to pump blood to our legs and arms, we begin to breath quickly to increase the amount of oxygen delivered to our tissues, we sweat to cool off our body, and our digestive system reacts to eliminate any excess waste or urine to make us lighter on our feet. Although we are now prepared to flee a predator in the Sahara, we are in no better position to solve the challenges we confront at work, in our personal lives, or when we watch the endless 24-hour doom and gloom news cycle.
Sometimes we do not experience a full-blown fight or flight response, but rather the amygdala produces a more chronic, attenuated reaction. This happens when the body secretes low levels of the hormone cortisol that makes us feel physically and emotionally tense and anxious. We walk around like we are in a scary movie, after the haunted music begins and before the villain appears. We are on the edge of our seat, and the smallest snafu in our lives triggers an imposing startle response.
Since chronic anxiety and feeling on edge is uncomfortable, we often appeal to another neurological system to make us feel better. This system is referred to as the reward and pleasure system, and is mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine. Although this system evolved in humans to feel the positive sensations associated with sex, food, and water, can be activated by several other modern behaviors. Addictive substances and risky activities such as gambling trigger the dopamine system, and transport us from the chronic fight or flight response to a more pleasurable and sometimes even ecstatic feeling. The problem with this approach is that while dopamine gives us pleasure, the effect is fleeting. Often, when it disappears, we are left feeling the same, if not worse than we did before the dopamine release.
More recently neuroscientists have described a third system, the "tend and befriend" system. This system is modulated by the neurotransmitter oxytocin. When activated, it produces feelings of comfort and stability, and is associated with enduring improvements in mood and well-being. This system is correlated with several human feelings, one of which is compassion. Compassion refers to feeling empathy in the face of suffering. It is important to cultivate for others, but most importantly, for yourself. Self-compassion is associated with lower rates of depression, self-criticism, physical ailments, and improved immune system functioning. When we are experiencing self-compassion, we ask ourselves what do we need to feel better, and how can we soften negative emotions? We learn to give ourselves a sense of comfort and nurturing. How do we activate this response? It takes a lot of practice. Next time you notice you are experiencing distressing thoughts, try the following exercise.
First, start with a few breaths to tune into whatever is going on inside. Notice if you are experiencing anger, fear or sadness. Where do you feel the emotion in your body? Start to soften that area, as if you are applying heat to sore muscles. Next, think of a nurturing person in your life. Perhaps it is a best friend, a parent, a mentor, or a figure you admire, or even a spiritual leader you have never met. Choose a person or being who you believe loves and accepts you as you are. Now, think of encouraging words that this figure might say. Let them comfort you and help you to feel understood. Give he, she, or it the heavy responsibilities you are facing, and let them guide you with their words and acceptance. You might also take some time and write yourself a letter from this nurturing presence so that it is available during future times of difficulty. After several instances of practicing self-compassion, you will find that your anxiety is less, and that you will be able to recover more quickly from negative emotions, even when handling the biggest challenges.