Source: Cultivating the Compassionate Self: an Exploration of the Mechanisms of Change in Compassionate Mind Training (Matos et al., 2021)
In an interesting paper published last year in the journal Mindfulness, a group of researchers investigated the mechanisms of change in what is called ‘Compassionate Mind Training’.
Compassionate Mind Training (or CMT) is a psychological training developed specifically to help people become more compassionate.
The definition of compassion used by the authors is: “a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and of other living things, coupled with the wish and effort to relieve it”.
It is worth noting that according to this definition (and most other definitions used in the field of psychotherapy research) puts a lot of focus on the act of doing something.
In this case “effort to relieve it” means that compassion is not just a feeling, but rather a skill. Additionally, compassion is perceived to be a dynamic inter- and intra-personal process that happens in a social interaction. For example,
- There is compassion we can show to others
- There is compassion others can show to us, and
- There is the ability to be compassionate towards ourselves
A quote which demonstrates this from Paul Gilbert, one of the founders of Compassion-Focused Therapy, and the senior author on the paper, is:
“[compassion] isn’t just about acting in kind, warm and friendly ways. It’s also about protecting ourselves and others from our own destructive desires and actions; it’s about being assertive, tolerating discomfort and developing courage.”
Coming back to the Compassionate Mind Training, it makes sense that this focuses on the following:
- Understanding the concept of self-criticism and self-compassion
- Coming up with ideas for generating self-compassionate qualities
- Exploring hesitation and fears of developing self-compassion
- Identifying any self-attacking behaviours
In the research study, the authors randomly divided people into 2 groups. One group received the compassionate mind training (n = 56) and another was the ‘wait list control’ group, which received no training (n = 37).
The training consisted of a ‘psychoeducation session’ (an educational session where people learned about compassion), as well as a set of core compassion exercises that they then practiced for 2 weeks.
The authors then collected self-report measures of compassion, fear of compassion, self-criticism, shame, depression, stress and positive emotions, before and after the two weeks.
They also measured the heart-rate variability, which is the variation in time between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by a primitive part of the nervous system, and the higher the variability, generally, the more flexible and healthy the nervous system is thought to be.
For a detailed overview of what heart rate variability is and why it matters, please see this Cleveland Clinic article.
When the authors compared people’s scores before and after the 2 weeks, they saw that the training (unsurprisingly) was associated with
- More compassion for oneself, for others, and from others
- Less fear and hesitation about developing more compassion
- Higher heart rate variability
- Less self-criticism, shame, depression, stress
- More positive feelings
The conclusion that the authors draw is that compassionate mind training may stimulate “vagal regulatory activity” (the vagus nerve is central to the physical experience of feeling safe as opposed to anxious - for more details on this please see the slides from community call #2 here).
In essence, the part of the nervous system that helps us feel grounded, safe, and open to compassionate feelings and actions, can be trained, and compassionate mind training is one way of doing so.
The authors then suggest that this “regulatory activity” (basically, the ability of the nervous system to help us regulate our emotional state and move away from fear and anxiety and overwhelm and into calmness) is exactly what creates an increased ability to experience and be open to compassion as a result of the training.
They suggest that this is what allows people to become more skilled at regulating and taking more compassionate control of their emotions, well-being, and mental health generally.
Our suggestion for getting started with your own version of compassionate mind training, if you are interested, is with the ‘Write a compassionate letter to yourself’ exercise in the Recharge tab in the Alena app.
Here are some reflection questions for you:
- What activities do you know help you feel more grounded, compassionate, and friendly towards yourself?
- How might you create more time in your week for doing those activities / training your compassion?