Your Brain on Compassion

brain scans

The compassion focused therapy (CFT) model is based on research showing that some of the ways in which we instinctively regulate our response to threats have evolved from the attachment system that operates between infant and mother and from other basic relationships between mutually supportive people. We have specific systems in our brains that are sensitive to the kindness of others, and the experience of this kindness has a major impact on the way we process these threats and the way we process anxiety in particular.


Two of the most significant twentieth-century psychologists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, observed that the attachment bond between a caregiver and an infant provides more than just protection, feeding, and learning opportunities. It also provides what’s known as a secure base, a soothing and calming potential retreat from distressing emotions or environmental threats.


This secure base is one aspect of our behavior that has been passed down to us through evolution, and it has served us well. It’s natural for us to turn to emotionally significant people in our lives, and even to our internal representations of them, when we feel threatened, agitated, or overwhelmed.


Compassion Research Takes Notice


In the 1980s, Paul Gilbert became interested in the internal mechanisms that help us feel safe and the way these feelings of safety interact with feelings associated with threat. He understood that if children and adults were able to be calmed by the presence of supportive or caring others, there had to be a direct link between support and the experience of threat. So, after much research, he labeled our physiological system that switches on these feelings of safety “the social-safeness system.”


The social-safeness system involves a responsiveness to our significant attachment figures—specifically, to their accessibility or proximity and to certain communicative behaviors, such as their facial expression, tone of voice, and touch. The activation of attuned, secure, soothing relationships allows us to interact with our environment with greater confidence when we face challenges, because we know we can return to a sense of safety and protection in this secure base when necessary.


Thus there’s a connection between feeling safe and being able to explore. This is important because, as we’ll see, there’s a close interaction between mindfulness, which allows you to have open and explorative attention, and a feeling of safety. The process of establishing a secure base and attachments involves a special set of brain cells known as mirror neurons, which allow us to literally feel what other people are feeling when we observe their behavior.


Mirror Neurons


According to Daniel Goleman, mirror neurons “act as a neural Wi-Fi, attuning to the other person’s internal state moment to moment and recreating that state in our own brain—their emotions, their movements, their intentions. This means [that such a feeling as] empathy is based not just on reading the external signs of someone else’s feeling, like the hint of a frown, or the irritation in their voice. Because of mirror neurons, we feel with the other. Empathy, then, includes attuning to our own feelings in order to better sense what’s going on with the other person.”


According to attachment theory, secure relationships with others allow us to better cope with and manage the range of difficult emotions that arise in response to inner and outer circumstances. When we’re threatened, our attachment system is activated and we seek to be close to and gain comfort from a significant person in our lives. This sort of relationship is referred to as an attachment relationship. The person who’s the object of attachment—who may help us cope with the perceived threats and access our positive emotions—is sometimes referred to as an attachment figure. Of course, there are differences from person to person in how effectively, or consistently, this attachment system functions. Those of us raised with stable, secure attachment relationships are more likely to be resilient, be flexible, and have an increased capacity to cope with difficult emotions.


Responding to Threats


Those of us who experience neglect, trauma, abuse, or even just a generally inconsistent and emotionally unavailable attachment relationship to our caregiver are more likely to have difficulty coping, being reflective and thoughtful, and soothing ourselves. A person who can activate, even symbolically, her attachment and affiliation system to respond to difficult emotions may have an easier time with self-compassion. Studies suggest that a person who has a secure attachment system may focus more of her attention and resources on generating positive emotions, on problem-solving, or on shifting her perspective on events than would a person with an unreliable, anxious, or avoidant style of attachment.


Additionally, and on the biological side, we have certain hormones, such as oxytocin, that are linked to affiliation and that help us downgrade threat processing, in the ways kindness and self-compassion can soothe us when we’re fearful. When we practice self-compassion for long periods, it seems that regions of the brain that involve self-soothing and positive emotions are activated more easily, particularly in the face of stress; thus, they help us cope with anxiety.


The key idea in using CFT to address anxiety is to specifically train our minds to focus on compassion and to activate compassionate ways of responding to our anxiety, in order to better regulate our feelings. By doing so, we’re stimulating specific biological systems in our brains designed to calm down the threat-detection system.


If you worry too much or think about certain things over and over again, or if you’re too self-critical, it will simply stimulate your threat-detection system and cause you to get locked in to stimulating your threat-response system. It’s possible, though, to step out of that by redirecting your thoughts, redirecting your attention, or becoming mindful.


The idea is to break the link between what your “new brain” is doing and your old-brain threat-detection system. Part of the essence of CFT is using parts of our minds, including the affiliation system, that have evolved with the specific purpose of calming down the threat-detection system. After all, there are direct connections between these two.


This is an excerpt from The CompassionateMind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dennis Tirch, PhD.