Benefits of Resilience & Compassion Training

Pain is inevitable but suffering may be alleviated. Over the course of a lifetime, adversities are bound to occur due to causes and conditions that escape our control, causing us much pain and suffering. We are all vulnerable to that. This is part of what constitutes our common humanity.

However, there is an important difference between pain and suffering. Here I refer to pain as the inevitable adversities that happen to us, and that are beyond our control. Suffering, however, is an inner experience that arises within our heart and mind, which results from the attitude that we have towards pain. This inner experience is within our control, provided that we have the necessary skills to re-appraise the situation, to view through a different lens, to take a wider perspective, and to recognize the universality of these adversities with kindness. Hence, with training, it becomes possible to relate to life’s inevitable adversities with greater acceptance, with kindness to ourselves and to others, firmly anchored to a sense of purpose and meaning that not only propels us forward but also enables us to bounce back with greater wisdom. With proper skills, adversities have the potential to be transformed into opportunities for growth, and to grant us with a deeper appreciation for the ordinary moments of one’s daily life. These skills are integral components of resilience and compassion training, and central to well-being.

We usually don’t think of well-being, compassion and resilience as skills that can be developed, but the good news is that they are, not unlike mastering a musical instrument with practice, getting fit with cardiovascular exercise, or building muscles by lifting weight at the gym. Neuroscience has revealed that resilience and compassion are skills that can be developed because their underlying neuronal processes undergo neuroplasticity, and may be epigenetically regulated (1–8), which means that they can be shaped and strengthened with mental training.

Evidence-based secular educational training programs that are suitable to everyone, irrespective of religious tradition or lack thereof, have been developed to help us cultivate emotional balance, resilience and compassion, and the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria has faculty members who are certified teachers of two such programs: CBCT® (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training; 9-15) and CEB (Cultivating Emotional Balance; 16-18). In addition, BREATHE (Bringing Resilience and Emotional Awareness Training to Healthcare Education), a CEB-inspired educational program, was developed specifically for medical students, residents and healthcare professionals to help them develop skills to address some of the challenges and alleviate stressors that are commonly experienced by this cohort.

Courses are offered year-round. Since class sizes are limited to 40 participants to facilitate dynamic participation, priority is given to our students, residents, and faculty, but enrollment is open to the Peoria community at large, including teachers and counselors in the Peoria Public School. Applications placed on a waitlist will be automatically prioritized for the subsequent course offering.

For enrollment in upcoming classes and for more information on these educational programs, please follow these links: CBCT®, CEB, BREATHE. It should be emphasized, however, that these are not therapeutic interventions. These are educational programs to cultivate emotional balance and for resilience and compassion training, skills that may aid in the prevention of burnout, depression and feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. These courses are also available on a contractual basis through the Center for Wellbeing, which also offers counseling services.

While everyone can benefit from these educational programs, medical students and healthcare professionals are especially vulnerable to emotional distresses leading to burnout, depression and even suicidal ideation (19-36).

Empathy, one’s ability to resonate with the feeling of others (affective empathy) is instrumental to the development of compassion. As discussed by Daniel Goleman in his book co-authored with Richard Davidson, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body”(37), one of the significant challenges for empathy is that often people empathize emotionally with someone’s suffering but then tune out to soothe their own uncomfortable feelings. Empathic distress may be conducive to emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, the two characteristics of burnout. It is for this reason that compassion training is so important.

Compassion training enables the experience of empathy to fuel what starts as a mere aspiration and that then grows to a sense of determination, commitment, responsibility and readiness to engage, to act in whatever way possible to alleviate the suffering of another (38, 39). Goetz and colleagues (40) defined compassion as the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help. Importantly, while empathy activates regions of the brain associated with pain, compassion activates neuronal networks associated with motivation and reward. Hence, compassion and resilience training have the potential not only to prevent burnout but also to enable the realization of the altruistic aspirations that lead healthcare professionals to pursue such a career in the first place, the motivation to assist those in need, to alleviate their suffering, to make a difference in people’s life. Hence, I reason that compassion and resilience are necessary skills to be developed by healthcare professionals and by any other professionals, communities and individuals, who are constantly exposed to major stressors and hence vulnerable to burnout.

Marcelo Bento Soares, Ph.D.

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