Increase Compassion by Remembering the ‘Good Stuff’

Recently, I asked participants in a domestic violence offender group about how they would define compassion. Some connected it with sympathy, others with doing what others want you to do. The fact that for most of them the word was not part of their daily vocabulary did not mean that they had never been compassionate. Unsurprisingly, they could remember some ‘good stuff’ and doing so may also help you to feel more secure in your relationships this year.

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The term compassion is not something we readily hear on the news; it’s hardly used in block buster movies. Although the word ‘compassion’ sounded strange to some men in the offender group, they were all familiar with acts of kindness that come out of concern for another person. They also agreed that there is a difference between feeling what another feels and acting upon this feeling.

Commonly, in psychology this distinction is made to distinguish between empathy and compassion. Empathy has been defined as the vicarious experiencing of an emotion that is congruent with, but not necessarily identical to the emotion of another individual, as well as the knowledge or understanding of another’s feelings tied to it (Eisenberg and Janet Strayer 1990). Compassion is more than that.

In broad terms, the term compassion refers to the ability to be touched by the suffering of others and the desire to alleviate their suffering. It has been associated with the vicarious experience of distress in response to another person’s suffering, a variant or blend of sadness or love, and as an evolutionary adaption that motivates helping behaviors for the sake of survival, reproduction, or both (Goetz, Keltner, and Simon-Thomas, 2010).

The great news is that compassion also spreads. It reproduces itself because the recipients of compassion tend to become more compassionate themselves. Some researchers argue that higher “attachment security” is closely related to higher levels of compassion towards others and altruistic helping behavior (Shaver and Milkunicer (2004).

Attachment security or feeling valued, safe, and cared for in a relationship may be a result of your past experiences. It includes instances of having been treated supportively as a child, being involved in security enhancing close relationships during adulthood, being able to call upon mental representations of being cared for, being influenced by a security enhancing context, or a combination of these factors.

From this perspective, our human capacity to experience compassion is enhanced through trusting, secure, and protective relationships. While people with more attachment security are said to be able to show more compassion, little is known about the positive effects of compassion on attachment security and wellbeing in relationships.

In my own clinical practice, I found that even people who went through intense trauma, including many domestic violence offenders, “big” and “small” acts of compassion are common. Sometimes they are not seen as such and remain undervalued or not integrated into a coherent story about personal values and relationships.

For the men who had abused in the past, communication in the group provided a way to expand awareness about the benefits of compassion. In the past year, several had cared for sick family members, supported someone who struggled with everyday life problems, or intended to do so in the year to come. The group discussion provided them with a rare forum to develop a language around these act, to share and celebrate them.

In my opinion, one of the keys to cultivating compassion is to remember and become aware of the “small” compassionate acts we already perform. Once we value, understand, and enjoy them, we may create more possibilities to practice compassion – perhaps with the result of enhancing our own and other’s sense of safety and “attachment security.”

When I focus attention on the ‘good stuff’, I change neural pathways in my brain, a process called neuroplasticity. The term neuroplasticity is used to refer to our ability to change the physical structure of our brains throughout the lifespan (Siegel 2010). We can literally grow new synaptic connections through sustained and focused attention on compassionate acts. Is this going to increase your compassion? Try it out.

By reflecting and talking about past instances of turning empathy into action you may turn neural pathways into superhighways that inform future action.You turn something that is already present into the forefront and thereby make it more powerful. How have you acted compassionately lately?

 

 

 

Beyond the Brain: The Hidden Causes of War Trauma

Nowadays, much hope is put into neuroscientific efforts to penetrate the brain in order to understand and cure trauma, but almost nothing is heard about the political and social root causes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The U.S. government’s latest plan to increase military spending made me think about this dangerous shortcoming.

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War is profitable and corporate business is going to benefit tremendously from the Trump administration’s proposed $56 billion upsurge in military spending. ‘At what cost?’ I asked myself and came to the conclusion that increases in military spending are likely to have a negative impact on mental health. I followed a simple line of thought: Further inflation of the U.S. military industrial complex serves profiteers that make money with wars through which people are killed and traumatized. In other words, trauma caused through war is linked to big business.

This is a good time to remember that a root cause of war-related PTSD and TBI is state-sponsored violence. Focused on the latest neuro-babble mental health professionals are commonly reluctant to speak out about the social and political nervous system of war trauma. I was one of them, until I realized the need to have a broader discussion about ethics that reaches far beyond the closed doors of a ‘psychotherapy’ practice. When I heard about the planned increase in military spending I thought of a wreath-laying ceremony that I attended a couple of years ago at San Diego State University. Back then nobody addressed the economic and political forces that drove the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and caused the death of the honored servicemen, let alone the mental health issues of veterans who survived them.

A root cause of mental health problems among veterans lies in the military industrial complex. Corporate profiteers care little about the suffering their business causes for veterans or civilians. During the wreath-laying ceremony, I noticed that the chairs in front of the memorial were covered with flyers promoting a panel of San Diego’s military industry that was organized by the SDSU alumni association. The flyer said that the city ought to remain “competitive” in the global market of military technology. Evidently, there were no critical voices at the ceremony. Emotions remained invisible behind the stern faces of the servicemen and women. To work through existential insecurity caused by war trauma would be synonymous with breaking the norms of militarized masculinity as well as the economic forces that drive it.

While veterans and their families suffer, corporate business continues to benefit from war and military spending. Almost a decade ago, anthropologists Matthew Gutmann and Catherine Lutz in their book Breaking Ranks: Iraq Veterans Speak out Against the War pointed out that an estimated three trillion dollars had entered the coffers of corporate war profiteers. The militarization of U.S. American society can be observed when looking at an ever-higher resource allocation for military purposes, but also the overall normalization of war in society that comes with it. Military spending goes hand in hand with talk that legitimates military actions on TV and has an impact on popular culture in which violent movies and video games have become the new norm. Confronted with the cultural and economic war machinery, people seem to be made believe that life is a state of permanent warfare. From this dangerous and distressful point of view, society must be subordinated to the military rather than the military to the needs of a democratic social order.

The recently proposed increase in military spending should be concerning to health and human services professionals as well as their clients. In 2010, the U.S. Federal government was already spending as much on the Defense Department as for Medicare and Medicaid together. Federal funds to promote psycho-social development and wellbeing that prevent physical and mental trauma are likely to be further cut in the wake of increased military spending. This is going to be the case despite the fact that the United States accounts for the by far largest share of the worlds total military spending (40,1%), distantly followed by China (8,2%) which occupies the second rank. Unfortunately, the huge military budget did not bring peace and democracy to the world. In the contrary, it fostered the emergence of more terror and mental disorder.

There is a growing number of veterans who are speaking out about the post-traumatic stress experienced as a result of U.S. sponsored war, including torture and the massacre of civilians. Unfortunately, the majority remains silent. Militarized masculinity with its hallmark of stoic endurance may have something to do with it. The outcomes are devastating. By the end of the Iraq War, the number of suicides had dramatically eclipsed the number of troops dying in battle and accounted for nearly one death per day. Many of those who risked their lives for dubious reasons have become marginalized and mentally ill after deployment.

At the wrath-laying ceremony I learned that veterans are in need of acknowledgement and recognition for the sacrifices they made. I’m still moved by their commitment to serve a broader common ‘good’ and their honorable intentions, perhaps a commitment to create a better world. But in order to serve wounded warriors dramatic increases in budgets for health and social services are needed rather than steroids for the military industrial complex. I believe that for mental health professionals who treat PTSD and TBI it is an ethical responsibility to give a voice to veterans who are silenced in wrath-laying ceremonies and recent policy-making initiatives. It is part of our work to provide spaces in which they can enrich stories of trauma and go beyond cookie-cutter narratives that locate the cause of traumatic stress in the brain.