A Little Compassion Goes a Long Way

Clinical Psychologist, Dr Rebecca Holt explains why compassion is good for us and how to improve at it.


Despite the ongoing challenges of Covid-19 and the world around us, we hear stories every day of humans at their best, being sensitive to the needs of others. In the face of adversity people are showing acts of kindness to neighbours, friends, family and strangers. Be it delivering shopping, making scrubs for frontline medical staff or simply picking up the phone to check in with an elderly neighbour.

Although some may naturally feel more compassion than others, why is it that we are driven to help our fellow humans in their time of need? It would appear there are reciprocal benefits to both giver and receiver, a two-way street if you like.

The Benefits of Compassion

  • Our physiology is positively affected - We usually live at a fast, hectic pace which can send us into flight or fight mode. It is our sympathetic nervous system which activates here.This stressed state of living makes it difficult to feel compassion towards fellow humans.As a consequence we are more likely to judge others quickly in order to protect ourselves. By reaching out a hand of kindness we settle into a calmer, resting mode, instead driven by our parasympathetic nervous system. This helps to free up our threatened, egocentric mind enabling us to think of others and behave in a more compassionate way.
  • Boost to our immune system - Some studies have shown that our ability to fight infections may improve if we continue to operate from the parasympathetic nervous system. A further benefit to all of us is that showing compassion can even slow down the aging process.
  • Reduction in stress levels - Doing kind deeds not only puts a smile on the recipients face but also makes us feel good about ourselves.This can bring down our stress levels which in turn protects our immunity and improves our general well-being.
  • Social connectedness - We are social beings with an in-built need to be with others. Covid-19 forces us to social distance, and in many cases self-isolate, which feels alien to us. Showing gratitude and compassion, even if that means from afar, can bring us together.

So is it possible to become more compassionate? The good news is yes. It is a behaviour that is indeed taught in our schools and forms part of nursing training. Research also shows that the more we engage in acts of kindness the more likely we are to repeat this form of altruism, which in turn becomes easier. Seeing people display compassion often inspires others into action, as does being the receiver of someone's generosity.

How to become more compassionate:

  • Exercise self-compassion - Possibly the first step to being more compassionate is being kinder to ourselves and forgiving our flaws. Once we reach this acceptance our self-esteem will improve and we will feel more willing to help others.
  • Be less judgmental - Jumping to conclusions about others can inhibit our ability to act out of kindness. Keeping an open mind about people's circumstances can foster empathy for them.
  • Being thankful - Seeing the suffering and sacrifice of others can make us feel immensely grateful for those we love and what we have to meet our basic human needs.
  • Compassion in parenting - Children model our behaviour so witnessing us showing kindness will help them to do the same as they develop. We can further enhance relationships with our children if we communicate openly and empathise with them.
  • The receiving end of compassion - Think about times when people have been caring to you and how that made you feel. Be willing to receive compassion too.
  • Step outside your comfort zone - Once you have practiced some compassion, set aside judgment and offer assistance to someone you may not immediately identify with. This will take your compassion to a deeper level.

Dr Rebecca Holt and Dr Lucy Shoolbred, Clinical Psychologists, Working Mindset