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Compassion as a Coping Mechanism

By on September 29, 2015 – 9:47 am  8 Comments

Alicia Assad, MAPP '08, Health Counselor is a writer and mother of four. Having survived postpartum anxiety, multiple pregnancy losses, and her son's burn injury, she contemplates ways that concepts such as optimism and gratitude can lead to growth in the aftermath of adversity. She is a former Miss New Jersey and Radio City Rockette. Follow her writing on Facebook, @AliciaAssadWrites, and visit her website, Alicia Assad: Recovering Perfectionist. MOM. Happiness Aficianado. Storyteller. Alicia's articles for Positive Psychology News are here.



“Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival.” Dalai Lama

In my earlier article, Growing through Adversity, I wrote about 7 positive psychology behaviors that helped me survive some very traumatic experiences. Gratitude, optimism, self-compassion, remembering that other people matter, practicing mindfulness, finding pathways to hope, and exercising resilience got me through my two-year-old son’s severe scald burn injury. These behaviors helped me care for another child with a birth defect that required surgery during his first year. They also helped me maintain hope through the second-trimester loss of another baby.

While I recognize I am more resilient because of growing through these adversities, I am also haunted by a deep fear that another terrible accident will happen to one of my children. It’s hard to keep my maternal protective instinct from going into overdrive. Now that I am approaching the ninth month of my current pregnancy I am haunted by memories. I remember being 36 weeks along in a high-risk pregnancy when I had to help my tiny son face terrible pain. Yes, he survived the injury, but if something bad were to happen again, we might not be so lucky.

Rationally, I know simply being pregnant again does not increase the chance of an accident happening, but I need to acknowledge all of my emotions, even the negative ones. Anniversaries of events bring on anxiety. I felt anxious as I neared the point in this pregnancy that I lost my last baby. I am anxious again remembering my son’s accident, so I have dusted off my gratitude journal, practiced mindfulness meditation, and leaned on my friends and family for support. Each intervention brings a moment of relief, but none have triggered an upward spiral of hope and optimism. Nesting behaviors have been my best defense when my anxiety feels unmanageable. With three children, I assumed I would never run out of things to organize in my home. But with the clutter just about clear, my anxiety remains.

Enter Compassion

Recently I have discovered something else that helps me stay calm: compassion for others. I first noticed it happen as I visited with another mother at the first-grade school orientation. Our infants once shared the same birth defect. Hearing about the struggles her daughter still faces brought on an overwhelming sense of compassion. To my amazement, feeling compassion lifted my own anxiety.

Since then, my neighbor was diagnosed with a rare melanoma, a friend’s father was in the hospital, another friend lost her mother, and a young mother suffered a miscarriage. A little boy suffered a scald burn in nursery school, and a teacher who is also the mother of four was diagnosed with cancer. I continue to notice that suffering and chances for compassion are all around me.

Flowers to a sad friend

Flowers to a sad friend

Whenever I feel compassion for others, I find my anxiety dissipates. My compassion has also inspired actions of altruism, such as cooking a meal, writing a card, or sending flowers. Naturally, these gestures come from experience. I know what eases the pain because I remember when these acts of compassion were bestowed upon me. I am comforted by the thought that if I experience something really difficult again, there will be compassion for me.

So by sending a condolence card, a donation in the name of the child in a burn unit, or flowers to someone who lost her mother, I feel better imagining that my gesture makes them feel better, even if only for a fleeting moment. I feel meaningful. I have purpose. I forget about my own useless worry as I hope that my small act of compassion can ignite a spark of hope in someone else as small acts once did for me. Just as my own gratitude once created an upward spiral of hope in a traumatic situation, I find that compassion helps me move away from ghosts of trauma passed.

What Do We Know about Compassion as a Coping Mechanism?

This is a new lesson for me, that experiencing compassion for someone else’s suffering relieves my anxiety. Usually we think of compassion as stimulating behavior that is beneficial to the sufferer. But what about the benefits to the one who is extending compassion to someone else? This question inspired me to look for research supporting the concept of compassion as a coping mechanism.

Emma Seppala crafts a compelling summary of the science that shows why compassion is healthy. Seppala points to leaders in the positive psychology field, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, who suggest that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease. Further, research by Stephanie Brown at Stony Brook University and Sara Konrath at the University of Michigan shows that experiencing compassion may even lengthen our lifespans.

With the intention of answering the big question of why leading compassionate lives is good for us, Seppola reveals:

  1. The act of giving appears to be as pleasurable, if not more so, than the act of receiving. This is true even with very small children.
     
  2. People living lives rich in compassion, altruism, and meaning tend to experience less inflammation.
     
  3. Stress predicts mortality in those who do not help others. Therefore it appears that compassion buffers against stress.
     
  4. Depression and anxiety are linked to self-focus. Therefore, compassion lifts moods by shifting attention to others.
  5. Compassion tends to increase our sense of being connected to others. Strong social connections have been associated with longevity, strong immune systems, and faster recovery from disease. Connected people also appear to have lower rates of anxiety and depression.
     
  6. Given the contagious nature of compassion, we are left with the thought that acts of compassion can change the world.

Scars and Compassion

My son is forced to talk about the scars from his burns because other children keep asking questions. But my scars are internal, so I can choose whether to talk about them or not. When I do, it is out of compassion for others who have endured something hard and feel stuck, just as I once felt. I tell my boy his scars mean he was once brave. Now, I am beginning to see that my scars make me more compassionate.

As anyone who has endured something difficult knows, healing is not a straight path. While navigating the recent twists in the road, compassion has been my most effective way to stay calm. It has also renewed my hope that regardless of what happens in the future, I will find a way to endure.
 


 

References

Assad, A. (2015). Growing through adversity. Positive Psychology News.

Seppala, E. (2015). The compassionate mind: Science shows why it’s healthy and how it spreads. Association for Psychological Science Observer. Includes many references to research on this topic. Ends with a discussion of CCARE:

“The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine was founded in 2008 with the explicit goal of promoting, supporting, and conducting rigorous scientific studies on compassion and altruistic behavior.”

Image credits:
The two pictures of the Assad family were taken by photographer Jennifer LoRe Muller.
The picture of the bouquet was taken by the friend that received it and is used with permission.

8 Comments »

  • Senia says:

    Beautiful, Alicia.

    But beyond beautiful, the way you wrote this also shows your growth. Just how you came to this understanding and grew in it. And how you can relate to others, and – in so doing – make them feel valued and alive.

    There’s so much we can do in compassion. Your article reminds me just how much is possible, and where I can make some dents in life.

    Merci.

  • Homaira says:

    This is such a beautiful piece Alicia!

    Thank you for reminding us to be compassionate for ourselves and for all those around us. Easily forgotten sometimes.

    All the best with your pregnancy. You have the best tool – compassion – and the prayers of many grateful people.

  • Judy Krings says:

    Alicia, I am forwarding your lovely, caring post to several clients who I know will identify and learn from your own poignant personal growth. How you morph fear to resilience is remarkable. Your post harnesses hope. Thanks so much for paying forward your empathy to help others thrive despite horror. Being a mom is tough, but you help all parents to know life’s sparkle is a renewable resource.

  • Alicia Assad says:

    Senia, Homira and Judy,

    Thank you for your kind words and for validating the thought that if I continue to write about what has been hard, I just might help someone else who is suffering.

    …and in that there is so much hope.

    38 weeks and counting and because of compassion, because of other people who matter, I walk forward with hope.

  • Cassandra says:

    Alicia, I absolutely LOVED reading this article! It is so true, that helping others and being compassionate for them makes us feel better, and I completely agree that putting our energy towards being there for others puts us in a better mood.

  • James Baek says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article because it comes from an experience of your life and its extremely relatable to the lives of many. I love the analogy of your internal scars and your son’s external scars. Showing compassion is something I really want to practice because I really think it helps both people because one person is receiving and the other is making themselves feel better.

  • Mary says:

    Alicia Luciano Assad—you are still the amazing person you were at LVR. I’m not at all surprised to see that you are a practicing Positive Psychologist. You always were! Love and hugs.

  • Alicia says:

    Cassandra, Thank you for your kind words…and for putting your energy toward this compliment : )

    James, Indeed, compassion is a two way street…

    Mary, Because I have continued to find myself surrounded by positive role models. Thank you for being one of them! xo

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