A New Remedy For an Angry America: Compassion

Susan O’Mara, chair of Emergency Medicine at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, recently took a compassion training.
Photo: Washington Post Photo By Michael Robinson Chavez.

As the head of a big-city hospital’s emergency department, Susan O’Mara has always focused on providing quick answers to people in crisis: A relative desperate for information. An injured person facing a very long wait. A colleague exhausted from dealing with fed-up patients. But until a special training a few months ago, O’Mara didn’t consider whether there were ways to be more compassionate in her response.

The training taught the doctor to pause and listen, and not jump to fix or respond defensively if an angry patient is on the offense. She said it has helped her focus better and find a deeper well of sympathy, even as she deals with trying situations at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in the nation’s capital.

“You want to get patients from Point A to Point B with compassion, and also not internalize and feel badly yourself,” she said. “To approach someone who is sad, scared, angry – to approach someone who is angry with compassion is the Holy Grail of emergency medicine.”

Defined as the ability to notice suffering (in ourselves and others) and then the desire to take action to alleviate it, “compassion” has become the buzzword for an angry nation. It is increasingly being held up by neuroscientists, corporations, business schools and psychologists as a concrete, powerful health strategy – and a successful business model.

Universities have opened centers devoted to compassion. Marianne Williamson and Cory Booker talked about it as an urgent American need during their presidential campaigns. Job networker LinkedIn and wealth manager Brighton Jones both recently created a director of compassion position.

Experts say this shift is the result of new research showing compassion’s impact, as well as an urgent desire to address rising rates of depression and anxiety among young people, and a steep climb of rates of suicide among all ages.

The idea that it’s good to be “compassionate” to yourself or someone else is obviously not new. But these uber-studied, emerging methods are very deliberate, part of a generation of neuroscience and genetic research into how the brain and body interact, and how relations with others have an impact on our health. The research looks at how compassion influences everything from the length of your life to how much you contribute to your employers’ bottom line.

Techniques used to train people to practice compassion range from O’Mara’s deep listening of others to hugging yourself, stroking your skin, and talking to yourself in a calming way. Experts use teachings, including about the interconnectedness of all people; exercises such as deep breathing or having a dialogue with a hurting body part, and practices like volunteering.

A group at the University of Helsinki studying compassion at work asks employers to run through a checklist about their employees: Am I showing interest? Understanding? Respect? Fairness? Offering the person a sense of control?

The focus on compassion comes more than a decade after the explosion in the U.S. of “mindfulness” – practices focused on attention, awareness and breathing. Health experts say compassion is the next phase, kind of mindfulness 2.0.

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SOURCE: Greenwich Times