Compassion: Shifting The Balance From Bad to Good Stress

07/20/2012 08:17 am ET | Updated Sep 19, 2012

Written by Dr. Firdaus S. Dhabhar: Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Member, Stanford Institute for Immunity, Transplantation, & Infection, Stanford University School of Medicine.

We generally think of stress as a big, bad, disease-causing, killer. Yet mother nature didn't give us the stress response to kill us. She gave us the stress response to help us stay alive!

For example, without this fight-or-flight response, a lion has no chance of catching its meal, and a gazelle has no chance of escape. All animals, including humans, need their stress response to survive.

Since it is impossible to eliminate stress from your life, learning how to stay on its good side is likely to be extremely beneficial for mental and physical health. If you can't beat stress, join it!

So, what is stress? And how does one distinguish its beneficial effects from its harmful ones? Here we discuss stress and suggest that being compassionate may be one important way of staying on its good side.

Stress can be defined as a constellation of events that begins with a challenge (the stressor), that is detected by the brain (stress perception), that in turn activates fight-or-flight systems in the body (biological stress response). Biological changes are essential in order for a stressor to have an effect on mind or body.

The stress response system can exist in three major states: I) A resting equilibrium that facilitates maintenance and growth, and is defined by the absence or very low levels of stress factors; II) Acute or short-term stress, defined by increases in stress factors that last for minutes to hours; III) Chronic or long-term stress, defined by changes in stress factors that persist for months to years.

Chronic stress is BAD. We know from studies conducted by our group and many others that chronic stress can have significant harmful effects on the brain, body, and health. For example, chronic stress can suppress or dysregulate immune function and accelerate immune cell aging.

In contrast, recent studies have shown that short-term, fight-or-flight stress can be GOOD and have beneficial effects. Mother nature gave all living beings the short-term stress response to protect us in times of trouble. This response enhances immunity, for example, by rushing the body's defenders (immune cells) to organs like the skin that are likely to become battlefields if the stressor (predator, or surgery) is accompanied by wounding. The short-term stress response has also been shown to enhance protection during medical procedures like surgery and vaccination.

The ideal state for all organisms, including humans, is to stay in their resting equilibrium for a majority of the time and to rapidly mount short-term fight-or-flight stress responses when confronted by challenging situations. Anything that you do to reduce or eliminate chronic stress increases time spent in resting equilibrium and maximizes the protective effects of short-term stress. The benefits of reducing chronic stress are likely to apply not only for escaping the jaws and claws of hungry lions, but also for modern-day stressors like job interviews, sales presentations, business negotiations, rapidly approaching deadlines, competitive sports, or rushing to catch a flight. Similarly, reducing chronic stress is likely to increase the effectiveness of medical procedures like vaccination, surgery, and cancer therapy.

Although this is still a hypothesis that I look forward to testing with my colleagues at CCARE, I suggest here that practicing compassion could be a major path to reducing or eliminating chronic stress. Self-compassion practiced wisely could help reduce your own chronic stress, while compassion toward others could reduce chronic stress for the compassion-giver as well as the compassion-receiver.

Part of self-compassion could involve making time for yourself to engage in activities that reduce chronic stress. Such activities could include, meditation, yoga, dance, music, reading, drawing, painting, gardening, walking, consistent moderate exercise, hiking, hanging out with friends, etc. It's important to recognize that stress-reducing activities involve different strokes for different folks. You need to find what feels right and works best for yourself.

Importantly, self-compassion implies that while engaging in stress-busting (or any other) activities you do not constantly compete with or criticize yourself. While moderate amounts of self-competition, self-evaluation, or self-criticism can be productive, an important aspect of self-compassion is to prevent them from becoming excessive and inducing chronic stress.

It is easy to understand how showing genuine compassion and helping someone who is suffering could reduce the sufferer's chronic stress. However, an additional benefit of being compassionate may also involve reducing your own stress. For example, you could be disappointed, concerned, or angry -- i.e., stressed -- about the poor performance of someone on your team. Directly taking punitive action would increase your team member's stress, and would also likely increase your own stress levels. If, however, you show compassion and intelligently work with your team member to come up with an effective solution for improving performance, then the compassionate approach is likely to reduce chronic stress not only for your team member but also for yourself.

Similarly, a firm, intelligent, and compassionate approach could be a less stressful and more effective way of raising children, and for negotiating other interpersonal relationships.

In addition to the stress-reducing activities mentioned above, sleep that results in feeling rested in the morning, healthy middle-of-the-road eating habits, support of friends and loved ones, and the recognition that few things are important enough to lose health or relationships over, may also help keep chronic stress at bay. We hypothesize that the practice of compassion may also strengthen these ways of living that can reduce or eliminate chronic stress.

We suggest here, and will discuss at the conference on the Science of Compassion, that a sincere and consistent practice of compassion may be a complimentary and universal mechanism that could confer significant benefits on its own, and in conjunction with other stress-reducing activities.

So the next time you see someone suffering, sincerely do your best to help them no matter how big or small the problem may seem. The unintended but beautiful bonus might be that you help the person in trouble, and you also help yourself!

Dr. Firdaus Dhabhar is Associate Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. His transdisciplinary research program is supported by membership in the Immunology Institute, Neuroscience Institute, and Cancer Institute at the Stanford School of Medicine. He graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth College with a double major in Biology and Government, and received a Ph.D. in Biomedical Science from The Rockefeller University. Dr. Dhabhar's laboratory has elucidated mechanisms by which short-term stressors enhance immunity, while long-term stressors suppress/dysregulate immune function. He has proposed that the fight-or-flight stress response is nature's fundamental but underappreciated survival mechanism that could be harnessed clinically to promote health and healing. Through rewarding collaborations with colleagues at Stanford (Spiegel, Bouley, Gross, O'Hara, Kesler, Hallmayer, Gotlib, Chang, Cosgrove), UCSF (Epel, Blackburn, Wolkowitz, Mellon), U. of Louisville (Sephton), and Yale (Ickovics, Jokl, Rosenberger), his laboratory investigates bidirectional interactions between the brain and immune system in the context of stress, depression, skin immunity, surgery, and cancer. Dr. Dhabhar has served on committees at the National Academies of Science, and in elected and appointed positions for the PsychoNeuroImmunology Research Society. Among his honors are the Council of Graduate Schools Distinguished Dissertation Award (for outstanding dissertation selected internationally); the PsychoNeuroImmunology Research Society Young Investigator Award (for outstanding contributions in basic and clinical research); and the Curt Richter Award (for excellence in the field of Psychoneuroendocrinology).

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