I’m a Neuroscientist, and This Is How ‘Compassion Meditation’ Helps You Feel Less Alone While Social Distancing

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While we practice social distancing and spend less time with friends and family, it's easy to get lost in your own head and melt into a puddle of worry. Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, PhD, a neuroscience research assistant professor at West Virginia University, says practicing compassion meditation can help you think outside of yourself and feel more hopeful and calm.

"Compassion activates the areas in the brain that are in involved in prosocial activities," says Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis. "Which is why it's so important in this time of isolation that we maintain that sense of connectedness with fellow humans."

Ruminating on negative thoughts activates self-centered parts of the brain. "Everyone is in a state where they're probably worrying more than they normally do right now," she says. "With time, those circuits can get overrun, and then then it becomes a habit." But when you practice compassion meditation, prosocial areas of the brain switch on instead. These areas of the brain are also stimulated when you're hang out with friends or family, and when you simply smile and wave to a passing neighbor, she says.

If you feel like you're experiencing anxiety and depression that requires more than meditation, you should seek the help of a professional. But if you're just a little worried, remember that it's okay to feel that way, says Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis.

"Be gentle and compassionate to yourself, and then you think about others who are worrying and anxious," she says. "Anytime you're experiencing something negative, you can leap and think of other people who are in the same boat and wish them happiness or wish them ease of suffering. And that makes you feel good."

A session of compassion meditation can be as short or as long as you'd like. By following Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis instructions (below), you'll find out how to incorporate compassion meditation into your daily routine.

How to practice compassion meditation

1. Start with mindfulness

Find a little object to loosely focus on. She says this can be anything from a small rock or stick to a spot on the carpet. "If you can gather something like an object of nature, I think that that there's a certain peacefulness that comes with that," she says.

The focus is meant to be gentle. "You notice the object and you try to keep your attention there. And if it wanders, which it will, because that's what your mind does, you just gently keep returning it," says Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis. "You're noticing what your mind is doing in that process, so it helps create a sense of awareness of what's what's happening with your mind and at the same time the mind slows down."

2. Think of a loved one

Once you're focused inward, shift your attention to a moment when you remember a loved one feeling happy. "When we see our loved ones happy and smiling, enjoying what they love, it brings a smile to our face," she says. "It just makes us feel good to know that they're happy or, if they had some sort of anxiety or pain or suffering, that that was lifted."

Next, send your loved one happiness and ease of any anxiety or suffering they might be going through. "You yourself might be currently feeling some anxiety and such, and that actually kind of helps make compassion meditation a little easier," says Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis.

If you have a spiritual practice that involves manifestation, you can tie this practice in, or just allow it to put a smile on your face.

(To make this practice more structured, you can find compassion meditations of varying lengths at Mindful Steps, on the West Virginia University's Health Sciences Center website, under the "Mindful Resources" tab.)

3. Bring it back to mindfulness

"You always start and end compassion meditation with a sense of mindfulness," says Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis. Bring your intentions inward, focus on your object, and finish by focusing on your breath.

4. Keep it going throughout the day

While a formal meditation may take a few minutes, Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis says to carry this practice with you all day. You could take a minute or two to think of others when you see a social media post that frustrates or saddens you or "every time you wash your hands think: 'May others be free of suffering. May others be happy. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering,'" she says.

Anytime worry starts to overwhelm you, "take 10 or 30 seconds to wish others happiness or ease of suffering," says Dr. Brefczynski-Lewis. "Even that is going to help."

It's okay to worry, but you don't want to let it take control of your life. Here's how to stop worrying about things you can't control, and here's how to deal with anxiety due to uncertainty.

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