An Excerpt from a
Below you will find an excerpt of the transcript from the session with Dr. McGonigal. Transcripts are a great way to review, take notes, and make the ideas from Kelly’s teaching your own. Here’s the sample:
What Happens in the Brain and Body When We Witness Suffering
Dr. Buczynski: So what is happening in your brain and your body when you see someone suffering?
Dr. McGonigal This approach motivation takes over, and begins to inhibit some of the other aspects of a stress response, like panic or fear. And you could observe this happening in the brain, as areas of the brain associated with caregiving, and even the reward system, begin to inhibit parts of the fear circuitry of the brain, and starts to inhibit parts of the nervous system, that give you kind of that panicky feeling, or that fight-or-flight response.
Dr. Buczynski: So that’s part of the reason that we are able to tolerate the difficult experience of seeing someone who is suffering. And that’s also often what some of our patients are learning in therapy. We’re helping the client learn to tolerate the things that cause them pain.
Research shows what happens in the brain as compassion unfolds and as it turns out, there are specific parts of the brain that get activated. In particular, the caregiving circuitry and the reward pathways that inhibit fear.
Now as I said a moment ago, although most people think of compassion as niceness and a feeling of calm, it’s actually more like courage. Some people even describe it as a paradox because compassion involves feeling stress, which is not calm at all. But at the same time the fear circuitry goes down and caregiving and reward circuity increases. So it ends up being distress with a centered feeling.
Dr. McGonigal One way to think about compassion is it is a kind of stress response, which is confusing to a lot of people, because we often think of stress as being a bad thing and compassion being a good thing.
At that point, what really characterizes compassion is that the parts of the nervous system that can transform a kind of fight-or-flight stress response, or even a freeze stress response, you start to see that the brain and the nervous system start to shift you into what looks more like a caregiving response or a courage response.
This is often rooted in the belief that there’s something you can do in this moment that will make a difference, or kind of a sense of safety or resources. So if you are motivated to respond to that suffering, and you feel like, “You know what? There’s an action I can take that will make a difference,” or, “If I stay put instead of running in the other direction, it’s going to actually bring some relief to this person who’s suffering.”
You can see it in how the vagus nerve begins to talk to your heart in order to slow down a kind of fight-or-flight heart response. And you can even see it in the hormones that begin to circulate in your brain and in your body, hormones like oxytocin or progesterone, that can actually begin to calm your stress response into a response that is really this interesting combination of being calm, and grounded, and centered, and yet energized and ready to respond.
Dr. Buczynski: Now think about that for a moment.
One way that compassion can help us is when we face stress or adversity. It’s at that time that compassion can transform our initial stress response into a caregiving or courageous response. That allows us to approach suffering and urges us to act.
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