Pam Kircher About Me Contact Me
Tai Chi NDEs Integrative Medicine End of Life Issues Reflections
  Section Home
  Selected Reading List
Integrative Medicine

Using the Science of Compassion to Heal the Wounded Healer

Presentation given at Healing Therapy Retreat in Pagosa Springs, CO on November 1, 2012

I participated in a conference on the Science of Compassion in July, 2012 in Telluride, Colorado. The conference was jointly sponsored by the Telluride Institute and Stanford University’s CCARE (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.) CCARE was developed by Dr. Jim Doty, a neurosurgeon at Stanford, and the Dalai Lama and Dr. Thupten Jingpa, the Dalai Lama’s chief translator. During the course of four days, 40 international researchers presented their findings to 400 participants in 15 minute segments. It was quite a time of taking notes, talking on breaks, and thinking! For the talk at the Healing Therapy Retreat, I emphasized those areas of research that would be most helpful to health care professionals experiencing “compassion fatigue. “ After the talk, Suzanne Bolton asked me to share the notes in the form of an article, so here it is.

Developing Compassion

In a keynote address, Thupten Jingpa, PhD stated that the purpose of meditation is to generate the motivation for compassion. When one meditates enough, compassion becomes a habit and, after an even longer time, it becomes a way of life. I believe that the process of learning Healng Therapy and giving it to others actually generates compassion in our lives way beyond the duration of the Healing Therapy Session and may even lead to a greater sense of wellness.

Self Compassion

Kristen Neff, PhD, University of Texas, has been studying self-compassion for the last decade. She defines self-compassion as “treating oneself with kindness, recognizing that life is imperfect and noticing your pain and be with it, without exaggerating it.” It seems to me that Caregiver burn-out is created through lack of self compassion. I couldn’t help but wonder if healthcare professionals would enjoy their professions more and be more compassionate if they were taught self-compassion in their training programs, and if not then, somewhere along the way in seminars and noon conferences.

Mindfulness Training in Veterans with PTSD

One study by Dr. Leah Weiss and Dr. Jim Hollenbeck working with veterans with PTSD at the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto showed that after six-weeks of mindfulness training, the symptoms of PTSD were decreased, and they felt much more hopeful about being able to return to their families.

Compassion Training and Stress Reduction

In a study in Atlanta with inner city youth living in environments of chronic stress, Dr. Chuck Raison reported that the level of C - reactive protein (a measure of inflammation) was decreased after six weeks of cognitive-based compassion training. Since C-reactive protein is a marker for inflammation, heart disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses, a decrease in C-reactive protein levels goes a long way toward maintaining wellness. Raison also noted that young people in the study tended to increase the parasympathetic tone when compared to the sympathetic tone in their nervous system.

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

Chronic stress is bad stress. It means living in a constant state of sympathetic nervous system stimulation. The person under chronic stress has increased cortisol, increased blood pressure and heart rate, a hyper vigilant state where they are always expecting trouble, increased sweating, and contracted blood vessels. They also have increased C-reactive protein levels which are a marker for possible chronic diseases of all sorts including cancer and heart disease.

In contrast, good stress is short bursts of turning on a sympathetic nervous system response such as in a bike race or acting in a play. It keeps the nervous system responsive and pliable so that it is prepared to respond when response is required. Meditation and mindfulness training and healing therapy sessions increase the parasympathetic (vagal) tone leading to a switch in the sympathetic/parasympathetic axis toward the parasympathetic side—breathing slows, muscles relax, heart rate decreases. A balance between the sympathetic/parasympathetic states is ideal.


Barbara Frederickson, PhD, University of North Carolina discovered that when people experience positive emotions, they are more open to possibilities. The preconditions for positive emotions include safety and connection. Having a Positivity resonance increases vagal tone. Self compassion brings safety, awareness of humanity, and therefore the possibility of compassion toward others. In that same vein, nonviolent communication helps to decrease chronic stress.


Dan Martin, PhD, from CA State University of East Bay, has spent his life studying compassion at work. He found that mentoring (even by e-mail) had a positive, long lasting impact on a person’s career, social and financial standing. I feel that the mentoring that is a part of the Healing Therapy course and follow-up sessions helps graduates feel not only more confident in sessions, but also helps them grow in their awareness of energies and the outcome of their Healing therapy sessions. Healing Therapy has two other aspects that increase compassion. Perceived similarity has been shown to increase compassion. As each person learns the same techniques and experiences that we are all similar in our response to pain and stress, it increases compassion.

Synchronous movements

Other studies showed that synchronous movements increase the likelihood of compassionate acts, even among strangers. I believe that is one reason that people who do tai chi together tend to be more compassionate toward one another. It is also the reason that compassion increases in a group of people learning Healing Therapy techniques in a class.


This information about the science of compassion can be practically applied to our lives as caregivers to help us be more compassionate toward ourselves and others, thereby reducing “compassion fatigue.”


back to list of articles