As COVID-19 ricocheted around the globe, millions of us sought shelter in retreat. Not only were we quarantining at home, we were putting up internal walls against the suffering we saw in the world. For more than a year, it’s been easy to justify an inward focus rather than an outward one.
But a new study suggests that retreating from compassion in the name of safety may not protect us as we hope. Shutting off our compassionate response during the pandemic may threaten our mental health, the research team found, and fray the social connections that sustain our well-being.
This research shows the corrosive effect of suppressing our instinct to connect with others, says Leah Weiss, a founding faculty member of Stanford University’s compassion cultivation training program.
“When we get into a fear-based, anxiety-driven perspective, we’re going to withdraw and isolate. When we withdraw and isolate, we have even more anxiety, so it leads to a negative loop,” Weiss says. “The whole thing ramps us up, and then our resilience, our resources, go down.”
How Retreating From Compassion Can Backfire
To explore how attitudes toward compassion were affecting people’s well-being during the pandemic, University of Coimbra psychologist Marcela Matos and her team recruited more than 4,000 people from 21 countries, including Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. All of the participants completed an online survey in spring 2020 that asked them to describe their beliefs about compassion, as well as their psychological state and the strength of their social connections.
The team was particularly interested in the fear of compassion, which comes in a number of different forms, Matos says. Some people are afraid that responding compassionately will trigger emotions that overwhelm them, threatening to suck them under. Others believe that showing compassion is tantamount to showing weakness, or that those around them don’t deserve compassion.
When people hold these kinds of beliefs, they may consciously or unconsciously block their own compassionate response, failing to notice other people’s suffering or to help them when they’re in crisis.
“In a way, they have an inhibitor that prevents this compassion motivation from being turned on or acted on,” Matos said.
When the team analyzed the survey responses, they found that participants who expressed a fear of showing compassion for themselves or others were likely to feel more depressed, anxious, and stressed out during the pandemic. Compassion fears also seemed to magnify the danger people felt from COVID-19: While the threat of the virus brought on some psychological distress, this distress was worse in those who feared showing or receiving compassion.
“What is really key here is that this risk effect—this magnifying effect of fears of compassion—was universal,” Matos said. “They were more vulnerable to the negative effect that feeling threatened by the virus had on their mental health.” People with a fear of compassion also reported feeling less connected to others.
Matos’s findings are consistent with earlier research showing the damaging effects of isolation and withdrawal on mental health, experts say.
“Social isolation is associated with not just loneliness, anxiety, and depression, but also an increased risk of hypertension, inflammation, cognitive decline, and vulnerability to addictions,” said Australian psychologist Hugh Mackay, author of “The Kindness Revolution.”
“The need to restore social cohesion is our greatest societal challenge,” he said.
Reversing the Downward Spiral of Isolation
On the flip side, people who choose compassion during stressful situations seem to have a more durable sense of well-being. Training programs that boost people’s compassionate response appear to reduce their fear of compassion during the pandemic, based on preliminary results from another of Matos’s studies. Other studies suggest that compassion training promotes activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which instills calm and helps us recover from stress.
“Compassion is this motivation toward being attentive and sensitive to suffering,” Matos said. “The activation of this motivation is linked to very important physiological regulators of our own well-being.”
People struggling with pandemic mental health issues can also seek out compassion-focused therapy (CFT), which helps clients cultivate compassion so they can heal from trauma and develop a clear sense of purpose. In CFT sessions, therapists remind clients of their capacity for compassion, leading them in exercises such as remembering times when they cared for others or helped them through difficult periods.
In addition, skilled therapists can help people escape the isolation trap by helping them get comfortable with different ways of showing compassion and connectedness.
“In the context of COVID,” Weiss says, “the more afraid we get of physical proximity, maybe the way to think about it is, ‘Well, what ways can you engage virtually?’ Or, can you set up an environment where there’s cushions that you’ve positioned for yourself, for your children, at a distance that you know is fine? Because the more you isolate, the less resilient you will ultimately be.”
On the civic and organizational levels, pandemic-control messages that stress protecting the whole community—for example, “Help save our most vulnerable. Together, we can stop the coronavirus” as opposed to “The coronavirus is coming for you”—are highly effective at motivating people to comply with health measures to stop COVID-19, a new study shows.
Besides slowing the virus’s spread, Matos says, such compassionate, community-focused messaging encourages people to look out for others in ways that benefit everyone involved.
Once people realize that compassion can benefit them in tough times as much as it benefits others, that insight can motivate them to pull out of an isolation spiral.
“We’re hardwired for social connection, for community, and for kindness and compassion, because those are the pathways to social harmony and cooperation,” Mackay says. “If you can find the resources to address the needs of other people, your own anxieties tend to melt away.”
Elizabeth Svoboda is a writer in San Jose, Calif., and a regular contributor to Greater Good. She is the author of What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness. Her newest book, for kids, is The Life Heroic. This article was originally published in Greater Good magazine.