There is no doubt there has been plenty of reason for anxiety in the last few weeks. Though some have responded with panic and greed, it warms my heart to hear of the many acts of compassion happening in our communities. People are sewing masks for health care providers or going out of their way to assist others in need.
Did you know that compassion is one of our best resources in a time of crisis? And it is not just because of what we are doing for others. There is a growing body of research supporting the idea that compassion can have a positive effect on the compassion giver as well as the recipient. One of its many benefits is relieving stress by calming the amygdala.
Our stress response is our brain’s way of responding to a threat. The amygdala relays messages throughout our nervous system to get ready to fight or flee. Hearing news about those suffering from covid-19 and the strain on our health care system can activate this stress response. When the amygdala sends out a stress signal, our body will respond accordingly. Chronic stress can cause sleeplessness, irritability, digestive problems and a host of other physical and emotional symptoms.
But when we choose to respond with an act of compassion, we change the response. The brain still detects the threat, but when we respond by planning to help others, we engage our prefrontal cortex. This sends a message back to the amygdala that everything is going to be okay, we can handle this. When we have the resources to cope with danger, the brain sees it as less of a threat. Instead, acts of compassion can trigger our reward system causing dopamine pathways to fire.
Compassion is like a muscle, the more we practice the stronger it becomes. While most of us need to stay at home, instead of focusing on the news, think of what you can do to help. It can be sewing masks for our essential workers, helping a neighbor, checking on the elderly or just practicing random acts of kindness to those in your household. Choose to respond with compassion for yourself and others and together we will get through this.