Compassion & Trauma
“Compassion is an essential evolutionary skill.”
– Prof. Stephen Porges
As humans, we are a social species. This means we are socially skilled to cohere and harmonize with others. One of the most essential skills we’ve developed is compassion. Compassion is defined scientifically as an other-centered “motivation state, characterized by feelings of warmth, love, and concern for the other as well as the desire to help and promote the other’s welfare.” (see footnote 1) Over the course of evolution, we have grown not just to express compassion to others in our tribes, but also to ourselves, psychologically. In the Buddhist tradition, compassion is understood as an infinite and divine abiding in one’s mind and heart to alleviate suffering. More recently in the West, compassion for oneself has emerged both in laboratory research and as mainstream practices. In this blog we will briefly explore the role and benefit of compassion practice in relation to trauma.
Our metabolism has natural capacities to regulate itself: think of the homeostatic function of temperature which is constantly keeping our bodies at a range of about 36-37 degrees centigrade. A traumatic event or phase in our life would impact our system’s natural regulatory abilities to restore, regenerate and heal itself. Therefore, trauma can be understood as an experience that results in severely dysregulating the autonomic nervous system.
To describe this metabolic frequency Prof. Dan Siegel uses the term of a window of tolerance (where we feel “grounded flexible & exploring”, see figure 1). When we face a challenge, depending on our resources (both inner and outer), our system will respond resiliently (and remain within the window of tolerance), or by being overly pressured (“can’t calm down”), thus going into fight-or-flight. When our system is completely overwhelmed and gives up (“shutting down”), which is when trauma occurs, it goes into a freeze-fawn response.
Figure 1. From tolerance to trauma. Source: NeuroSystemics Dharma.
Compassion for Trauma
Compassion is a mental-emotional ability to help ourselves and others in the face of suffering. Fight-Flight are states which hold great measures of affect, and compassion will very often be helpful then. Freeze-fawn states, however, are characterized as having very little affect, a limited sense of the body and more neutrality. This means responding with a very compassionate attitude to a state of freeze-fawn (whether our own of another person) may be misattuned. It will more often be of greater help to invite a sense of equanimity (equality of mind, peaceful neutrality, see figure 2) to these traumatic states, and keep compassion when affect comes back online (which it will, as the freeze-fawn states becomes less intense). (see footnote 2)
Figure 2. Compassion & equanimity for trauma healing. Source: NeuroSystemics Dharma.
Compassion is therefore a powerful buffer before and after traumatic responses to difficult life events. By developing equanimity, which is a peaceful neutral presence, one can open up to one’s own or others’ freeze-fawn states and allow them to be more regulated and integrated. (see footnote 3)
The bottom line here is that as we navigate our internal landscape of our body, our heart and our mind, we will come across a whole range of states, both joyful and more difficult, and even traumatic. This is perfectly natural. And it is therefore essential to equip ourselves with a range of attitude and practices (i.e. equanimity and compassion) to best integrate the different states we come to experience. Come and join our next Dharma Gathering or Retreat to develop all these skills at www.neurosystemics.org/dharma.
1 – Leiberg, S., Klimecki, O., & Singer, T. (2011). Short-term compassion training increases prosocial behavior in a newly developed prosocial game. PloS one, 6(3), e17798.
2 – Weber, J. (2017). Mindfulness is not enough: Why equanimity holds the key to compassion. Mindfulness & Compassion. Mindfulness & Compassion 2(2), 149-158.
3 – For a review of compassion for traumatic treatment, see Winders, S. J., Murphy, O., Looney, K., & O’Reilly, G. (2020). Self‐compassion, trauma, and posttraumatic stress disorder: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 27(3), 300-329.