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Compassion is Health

Can you think of anything more valued in our daily lives during this pandemic than health promoting and stress reducing compassion?

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Can you think of anything more valued in our daily lives during this pandemic than health promoting and stress reducing compassion? Not long ago I, along with my trusted colleague Lance Breger, MS, led a three-day intensive program on “Physician Wellness” for the members of the American Society of Hematology. One of our central topics was “compassion in healthcare.” Compassion is an essential, powerful element in our lives, in healthcare, in society. It elevates all of us and is without limit.

Our goal was to bring “fellow-feeling” to the practice of physicians and to illuminate the value of caring concern. When health care providers take the amount of time needed to make positive human connections that help end suffering, patient outcomes improve, medical costs decrease and physician burnout is minimized. 

And what is that time? Only 40 seconds. That’s what it takes to deliver a message of empathy, kindness and support to measurably reduce someone’s anxiety. In only 40 seconds, we can create a meaningful difference in the life of another and in our community. It’s simply the finest, expense-free, gift one can offer another.

Compassion reduces pain, improves healing, attenuates somatic disease effects on psychological and emotional wellbeing, has antidepressant effects, and buffers stress. 

Sounds like, along with gratitude, exercise, meditation and a myriad of other activities found to promote good health, compassion has risen the ranks to now safely proclaim, “compassion is health.”

Enter “Compassionomics,” with its much-heralded book by Stephen Trzeciak, M.D., and Anthony J. Mazzarelli, M.D. Compassionomics has become a branch of scientific study of the effects of compassionate healthcare. Simply put, compassion is the emotional response we have to each other’s pain or suffering, with an authentic desire to help. Empathy is the understanding of another’s challenges or struggles, while compassion is that action that flows from empathy. Something that costs nothing, compassion, neuroscience research finds, can make us happier. 

And if there ever was a time when compassion was needed, with the emotionally tumultuous crisis brought on with COVID-19, it is now! Not just in healthcare. But I believe even more impactfully, in all of our daily lives. 

With physicians seeing unprecedented numbers of suicide and recent data finding about 70% of Americans report feeling moderate-to-severe mental distress, with social isolation, anxiety around health, and economic problems all fueling mental health challenges, compassion may be just what the doctor, or any wise thinking person, orders. Compassionomics has demonstrated over and over again that how we connect with another can powerfully impact our health. 

According to a survey a number of years ago by Wakefield Research for Dignity Health, “87 percent of Americans feel kind treatment by a physician is more important than other key considerations in choosing a health care provider, including average wait time before appointments, distance from home, and the cost of care.” And according to Dr. Trzeciak,“Research from Harvard shows that 50% of patients believe that the U.S. health care system and our providers are not compassionate.”

What about the rest of our lives? The CARE measure, developed by Stephen W. Mercer, M.D. at Glasgow University in 2004, used in healthcare to assess compassionate connections, may shed light on how we can bring this essential emotional salve to our connections. Here are some guiding questions to carry with you to bring more compassion to your daily interactions, connect more fully and promote health, calm and much needed emotional relief during this pandemic:

Do you help leave feeling others at ease?

Do you let others share their “story” with you?

Do you actively listen to others?

Are you genuinely interested in others, asking relevant questions about their lives?

Do you make an effort to fully understand the concerns of others when they share their suffering with you?

Do you show your concern in a true way or do you appear indifferent?

Do you bring a positive perspective to the lives of others?

So put away your cell phone and be there for others, present, spending more time listening without judgement, without “advice.” Let others know you will be there with them every step of the way to unburden them, to help empower them, to include them, to discover commonalities, and to show gratitude through this pandemic. Make a greater effort to imagine the circumstances the other person is facing, be genuinely curious about their experiences and thoughts about their situation, use your own shared experience to help create a positive connection, and let the other person know you can identify or recognize their emotion.

And consider these tips for yourself when connecting with someone experiencing the emotional duress of COVID-19:

Quiet your racing mind. 

Take a deep breath. 

Shift to a posture of presence. Lean forward. 

Face the person with whom you are connecting, fully. 

Give your undivided, respectful attention. 

Open your heart to tune in. 

Don’t think about what you’re going to do next, focus on now. 

Like Simon & Garfunkle’s The Sound of Silence, let’s disturb the sound of disconnected, compassionless, silence:

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Compassion in healthcare and in human care, and indeed in animal care, is among the highest of virtues. I write this article, the 69th in my series on emotional education, to fuel your commitment to helping others by feeling another’s reality, being mindful, present enough to identify their specific needs, and to take action to assist others. You’ll never know how much good can come from one single compassionate connection with another. 

Human connection and compassion matter, now than ever before!

This article was written by Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D.

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