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The Dalai Lama's Advice on Depression

Inner peace is a gift -- nurtured through meditation, empathy, and compassion.

Learning to Be Compassionate

A secularized version of the practice called compassion training is a step-by-step method for developing compassion. It is being used in Emory's research studies to examine the health benefits of meditation and compassion, says Geshe Lobsang.

At its essence, compassion requires that we develop a sense of connectedness to others, which will give us empathy for them, he explains. "If we are genuinely able to feel empathy for others, then compassion is the natural outcome."

In compassion training, students focus on developing that sense of deep connection with all beings, he says. "We develop a way of seeing how others are kind to us, even if it's unintentional kindness. Whether they intended to be kind to us or not, we can choose to perceive it as kindness."

Compassion Training Transforms the Mind

Using MRI brain scans, scientists have begun tracking the effects of compassion training.

"We are finding that we can transform the brain by changing the mind," says Richard J. Davidson, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The brain region related to compassion, the insula, "is quite special," he explains. "It is the only brain area that monitors the body and provides the brain with information on what is going on in the body. It sends signals to the body that might change during emotional distress."

Compassion training can generate a state in which loving and compassion envelops the whole brain, he says. When people meditate on compassion, the signals to the insula and other brain regions involved in empathy and understanding are changed. The change is more dramatic among advanced practitioners, compared with novice practitioners, he adds.

His studies have shown that with even a little compassion training, people can reap a physical benefit.

Volunteers who received compassion training online -- and practiced it for 30 minutes a day for two weeks -- showed significantly greater propensity to want to help people who were suffering. They also reported a higher level of well-being, confidence, and positive feelings. MRI brain scans of these volunteers showed greater activation in the insula, Davidson reports.

Raison has studied the effects of compassion training in Emory freshmen -- examining the body's stress response system, specifically inflammation that links stress with depression. These same inflammatory processes are risk factors for other diseases including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease.

In one of his studies, freshmen who got six weeks of compassion training had less physiological stress response in a test -- heart rates, blood pressure, stress hormone levels, and other stress-related markers -- compared with students who participated in a discussion group instead.

Not only that, students in the "compassion group" who actually practiced the meditation -- rather than just taking the training classes -- fared the best in the stress test. They had the least stress reaction, he reports.

"They came in the door a little different than the other kids who didn't practice it," Raison says. "These types of meditations help people reduce their reaction to stress."

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