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How Self Compassion Training Protects Nursing Staff From A “Burnout”

Self compassion training frees the suffering mind and energizes it. Your mind stops punishing you unremittingly for your mistakes and accepts the truth that you are doing the best you can. You learn to react with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment towards your own weaknesses and faults. Compassion training itself originated as a Buddhist practice, where meditation techniques enabled practitioners to consciously switch from emotions such as painful empathy to those of positive love. It converts the distress of a practitioner about existential suffering into calm and active energy.

Paramedical staff are reported to have improved their services through self compassion training. Many of these workers, who involuntarily share the pain of their patients on a continual basis, tend to suffer a "burnout," often leading to callous indifference. The training was reported to help such staff to both share the pain of the victims and also to become positive and energetic towards its alleviation.

  • The Buddhists define compassion differently.
  • Their approach prevents burnout and grants energy.
  • They utilize the pattern recognition feature of the nervous system to still emotions.
  • Breathing routines employ attention to still rising thoughts.
  • With focused attention, they identify the physical symptoms of emotions.
  • By stopping undesirable thoughts a person can choose his thoughts.
  • Empathic sharing of the sufferings of others is a painful thought.
  • Expert meditators can switch on the affiliation network.
  • The affiliation network grants energy to the Buddhist experience of compassion.
  • The self compassion process turns the feeling of compassion inwards.
  • Self compassion grants a person a wholesome view of life.

Self Compassion Training
Can "Compassion" Be Defined Differently?

Historically, the word "compassion." has a different meaning for the Buddhists. It is defined by the dictionary as "sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others." Such compassion often causes a "burnout," because of your inability to alleviate the pain of, say, an orphan in a distant city. According to the Buddhists, compassion is a feeling of "active kindness towards others." Their emphasis shifts from passive suffering to a diligent sense of kindness towards the victims. By switching mental states, their experience of compassion gains energy without necessarily helping the victims. "Compassion could benefit the persons who felt it by protecting them against burnout, but may also benefit others by increasing helping behavior."

Self Compassion Training
Can Emotions Be Stilled?

The Buddhist training profits from the propensity of the nervous system to switch viewpoints swiftly by recognizing and responding to patterns. The realization, that a snake among the bushes is only a garden hose, quiets a person's initial surge of anxiety. The sudden blip of fear is the outcome of a multistage recognition and response process by the mind. It tales just 20 ms for the amygdala to recognize the broad outlines of the garden hose, relate it to a snake and to trigger emotion signals. These trigger a knot in the stomach, or a tension in the neck. Within the next 350 ms, the recognition regions evaluate and identify the hose and inform the prefrontal regions. Those regions make the final judgment and inhibit the amygdala fear signals. The Buddhists exploit this phenomenon. They learn to focus the attention of the prefrontal recognition regions on needless emotions to still them.

Self Compassion Training
Does Attention Focus Controls Thoughts?

During meditation, conscious breathing is controlled by the will of the individual and is initiated by the prefrontal regions of the brain. During such breathing, the practitioner becomes able to non-judgmentally accept the thoughts, emotions and sensations that arise. During the periods of focused breathing, the Buddhist training directs prefrontal attention on the individual stages of the recognition process. This practice enables attention to control thought processes. At first, the mind wanders, uncontrolled, from thought to thought. Repeatedly bringing thoughts back to breathing trains the attention regions to stop more and more of the intruding thought processes. 

In the garden hose case, there is perception, initial recognition, emotional response, secondary recognition and final response. The initial 20 ms recognition process is too fast for conscious awareness. Fear is an intruding emotion, which strikes before you know it. But, the prefrontal regions can gradually learn to identify the subsequent knot in the stomach as the symptom of fear. Such physical symptoms actually initiate drives. The knot sets off a drive to identify the reasons for fear. As the drive uncovers more reasons for fear, the emotion becomes stronger.

But, recognition of the fear symptom by the prefrontal regions identifies the cause for continuing fear as a mere physical symptom and shuts off the drive. With practice, those regions come to perceive most emotion signals as false alarms and still them. This enables the practitioner to enjoy mere perception, free of the involuntary emotional interruptions. Once a person learns to stop intruding thoughts, he shifts focus to attracting and permitting desirable thoughts to stay.

Self Compassion Training
Does Empathy Lead To Burnout?

A major cause of troubling emotions are shared feelings and emotions, enabled by evolutionary development. The ability to share feelings is a pattern recognition process, implemented by the mirror neuron system. The system has been observed to cause the nerve cells, which report pain to the brain, to fire to make an individual actually experience the pain of a pinprick on another. The system operates across a wide range of feelings and enables people to empathize with others by sharing their feelings. 

But, the physically shared experience of the pain of a patient perturbs a visitor. Compassion training enables a practitioner to shift the focus of his mind from experiencing the pain to the objective of being kind to the victim. The mind switches from a state of emotional burnout to the euphoric state of loving the victim. The focus shifts from the pain response regions to pleasurable motor intention regions. The shift stills pain and brings energy and optimism to the practitioner.

Self Compassion Training
Can Self Compassion Empower Empathy?

Compassion training has been adopted by many Western scientists, seeding practices from Buddhist teachings. Certain breathing exercises still troubling attacks of emotions including guilt, shame, fear and anger. The practitioner gradually reaches a quiet observation mode. In this mode, imagining the pain and suffering of an anguished victim can cause distress to a practitioner. Mathiew Ricard, a greatly respected Buddhist monk, has trained himself to experience empathy and then switch to compassion. During MRI scans by scientists in the US, Ricard vividly imagined the sufferings of the ill treated orphans in Romenia, seen by him in a BBC program. While Ricard focused on empathy, he felt distress. 

He then consciously switched to his compassionate frame of mind. The distress reduced and he felt love and the courage to approach and console the victims. The sense of love is normally a system response, not open to conscious control. It is linked to the older mammalian caregiving system. Oxytocin and vasopressin are important components of the neurochemical system that supports vigilance and behaviors needed for guarding a partner or territory. Vasopressin prevents the ‘shutting down' of the system in the face of danger. Oxytocin makes it easier for a woman to express loving feelings for her child. These activate the orbitofrontal cortex, ventral striatum and anterior cingulate cortex - a network associated with love and affiliation. Evidently, it is possible to consciously switch on this network.

These regions were activated, when Ricard switched his mind to a compassionate state. This change in his emotional responses was confirmed by the MRI scans. There was no change in the circumstances of the orphans. The compassion of Mathiew Ricard could not help the orphans in Romania. Economic development and medical sciences can more effectively reduce suffering than the good intentions of compassion. Compassion can improve the quality of medical care, while medical science will actually improve medical care itself.

Self Compassion Training
How Does The Love Emotion Impact Behavior?

Meditation training grants sufficient control of the mind to enable a practitioner to consciously switch on the affiliation network. The typical behavior of an individual, when love takes control of the nervous system, is recorded in culture and literature. The system inhibits negative emotions. It suppresses the emotions of anger, irritability, jealousy and rudeness. The needs of the object take priority over one's own needs. Suspicion of the intentions of the object of love are stilled. The emotions of vengeance and comparison are stilled, giving way to forgiveness of past wrongs. Pleasure is not derived from put downs. Greater energy is granted to persist in helping the loved one. The initiation of the love network in compassion training creates a powerfully positive attitude. 

Self Compassion Training 
What Is Self Compassion Training? 
 In the self compassion process, the practitioner looks at herself from the outside by imagining herself as a separate individual. Without judgment or resistance, she allows herself mental space to be herself. She focuses on her own suffering. She imagines the guilt she feels about a wrong judgment, which caused an accident. Her own pangs of guilt have been largely stilled through meditation. The frustration and the drive to escape unavoidable guilt are further stilled. With self compassion, she is filled with a desire to comfort and soothe herself. 

Instead of continually punishing herself for not being good enough, she kindly accepts that she is doing the best she can. She sees herself as just another human being, who made a mistake. Her mind has switched from feeling the pain to a calm sense of care and concern. The saga of life is accepted and is accompanied by a sense of love and kindness towards her human self. Training can enable people to respond with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment towards their own weaknesses and faults.

Self Compassion Training
Is Self Compassion Training Useful?

Self compassion does not bypass pain, but accepts it as a part of life. It is not false pride, since there is acceptance that everybody can make mistakes. It is not a process of judging others. It is not a complacent view, but an active, helpful one. Self compassion grants the courage and energy needed to face the challenges of life. It is not self indulgent - it focuses on the longer term rather than on short term gratification. It is not self pity, since our failings are acknowledged and accepted. 

Self compassion fulfils an innate desire to be free from suffering. Research literature suggests that greater self- compassion is linked to less anxiety and depression. Self compassion may reduce self-evaluative anxiety because the light of shared human experience makes weaknesses feel less threatening. Reduced rumination is said to be one of the key benefits of self compassion.

This page was last updated on 07-Sep-2016.