Emory University | Woodruff Health Sciences Center
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Cultivating Compassion

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Meditation is moving into the mainstream. And studies are showing that it may be of benefit to everyone from medical students to at-risk youth.   

While empathy and compassion are fundamental to the patient–doctor relationship—and are linked to positive patient outcomes—empathy drops off steeply during medical training.

Emory researchers Jennifer Mascaro, of Family and Preventive Medicine, Andrew Miller, Timmie Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and colleagues designed a study to see if a specific type of meditation would help.

Cognitively-based Compassion Training (CBCT) uses meditation techniques designed by Lobsang Tenzin Negi of the Emory-Tibet partnership to strengthen resilience and empathy.

The study tested whether 10 weeks of CBCT had a positive impact on a group of second-year Emory medical students. Students who received CBCT reported increased compassion and decreased loneliness and depression, the researchers reported in the Journal of Positive Psychology. "The interesting thing is that it had the most impact on students with high levels of depression, suggesting that it reaches those in greatest need," Mascaro says.

Since 2014, Emory has offered free CBCT courses at the medical school. The course begins with meditative exercises that emphasize self-compassion, then asks participants to expand these emotions to their loved ones, strangers, and others—even those toward whom they do not feel particularly compassionate.

Each class combines didactic teaching and guided meditation.

Meditation courses are proving popular among students, faculty, and staff across the health sciences. On a recent weekday at Rollins School of Public Health, about 50 employees sat quietly on mats (pictured below). The only sounds were the gentle voice of the instructor and peaceful breathing. "It begins with keeping the attention in the present moment—following the breath," says Timothy Harrison, assistant director of CBCT for the Emory-Tibet Partnership. "Such practices improve our ability to maintain attention on one thing and not have it drawn off by endless distractions."

At the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, students are learning breathing awareness meditation as well as a type of sensory mindfulness. Several nursing faculty and students are certified in the Community Resiliency Model and are teaching its techniques to healthcare workers, police, fire-rescue, at-risk youth, and others.

"Participants can immediately use these skills to anchor themselves or to help others," says clinical research faculty Linda Grabbe. "This type of mindfulness takes advantage of brain neurocircuitry dedicated to empathy, social interaction, and sense of self, and draws on one's internal resources and strengths."

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