How Building Compassion is Key to Resilience

    Resilience is an essential skill that leads us through our challenges allowing us to adapt and thrive within a changing landscape. We’ve all had our share of difficulties over the last few months. The pandemic tested our resilience in various aspects of work and life.

    According to a 2020 study, only 19% of US workers are highly resilient, and the remaining 81% were considered less resilient and vulnerable to the negative impacts of adversity.

    Observing this deficit in the resilience capacities in the US workforce, the question is, how can we move the dial and strengthen our resilience? The study outlined below suggests that developing compassion is key to growing resilience.

    What if, just like strengthening a muscle or learning a new hobby, we could train ourselves to be more compassionate and calm in the face of others’ suffering?

    This is the question that researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison posed in a recent study, titled “Visual Attention to Suffering After Compassion Training Is Associated With Decreased Amygdala Responses.” Their findings suggest that as little as two weeks of compassion meditation training can alter the way people respond to others’ suffering.

    While this research has obvious applications for first responders, law enforcement, front-line workers and others exposed to suffering regularly, it could also affect the rest of us as we struggle with the many challenging issues in the world today. These last few years have been tough for us all, from the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to the continued struggle for racial justice, to the war in Ukraine, it is hard to remain resilient in a chaotic and uncertain climate.

    Resilience is the ability to skillfully cope with and recover from adversity, challenge and crisis. This skill is essential to our emotional well-being; it enables us to recover from trauma of any kind—small struggles or life-changing hurdles. It also helps us respond empathetically to others in need (instead of averting our gaze, panicking or losing hope).

    Compassion training helps you to not turn away from difficulty

    In the study, 24 participants practiced either 30 minutes of compassion meditation or reappraisal training (reframing personally stressful events to diminish negative emotions) once a day for two weeks. The compassion meditation group practiced what’s commonly called a loving-kindness practice, a simple mindfulness pra that involves directing well wishes and compassion toward other people (as well as ourselves). This practice typically focuses inward with ourselves initially, then moves to loved ones and finally toward people we don’t know. This kind of loving-kindness practice is a little like exercising a muscle, gradually increasing the “weight” in terms of the relationships as our compassion expands.

    Before and after the two-week training, all of the participants received brain scans. In the scanner, they viewed both evocative images of people suffering and neutral images of people. Participants were asked to apply their training, so those who had learned loving-kindness directed compassion toward the individuals, such thoughts as, “May this person be happy and free from suffering,” while the reappraisal group remade the situation by thinking, “This person is an actor and isn’t really suffering.”

    Results came via eye-tracking technology, which noted where people focused on an image, whether it was looking at the least emotionally charged areas of images or directly at the person suffering, and for how long. Researchers then compared this to the time spent looking at the socially relevant places (i.e., faces) in the neutral photos.

    The group that practiced loving-kindness meditation tended to look more directly at the images of suffering and showed less activity in the brain’s areas associated with emotional distress. These results suggest that compassion training could help people be more compassionate and calm in the face of suffering.

    Strengthening resilience

    Resilience requires this steadiness of mind and willingness to ‘be with’ suffering rather than turn away from it. As poet Robert Frost said, “The best way out is always through.” Our ability to face others’ suffering with compassion strengthens our capacity to meet the challenges in our own life with resilience.

    If you would like other practices to strengthen your resilience, check out our Adaptive Resilience program.