Empathy is an emotion that is directly related to the bonds that were formed in childhood. “Children from secure and loving backgrounds develop enhanced motivation and competencies for empathy and compassion for self and others, in comparison with children from insecure backgrounds,” said Helen Rockliff of the Henry Wellcome Laboratories for Integrative Neuroscience and Endocrinology at the University of Bristol in the UK, and lead author of a recent study. “Feeling that one is the recipient of care and support from others creates a feeling of safeness and soothing linked to well-being, whereas feeling uncared for is linked to mental and physical health problems.” She added, “The degree to which people feel secure and wanted in their current relationships is positively associated with positive affect and negatively associated with cyclothymic and dysthymic temperament in both student and bipolar disorder groups.”
Oxytocin, a naturally occurring neuropeptide, has been proven to increase compassion, empathy and other affiliative emotional responses. “It also increases attentional bias for rewarding social cues and has been found to enhance the attenuation of stress responses by social support,” said Rockliff. Therapeutic trends have increased the practice of compassion based therapies, such as Compassion Focused Imagery (CFI), and clinicians have suggested that oxytocin could enhance the treatment experience for people who struggle with empathy. For her study, Rockliff evaluated 44 participants for levels of self-criticism, compassion and attachment. Half of the participants were given oxytocin, while the other half received a placebo. After two CFI sessions, the participants were assessed again. Rockliff found that “oxytocin did significantly enhance the ease of imagining receiving compassion from another person/being and receiving various compassionate qualities for the self.” But she noted, “Individuals who are self-critical, insecurely attached, and lack a sense of social safeness can find various elements of compassion difficult, especially with oxytocin.” She added that although these findings support the use of oxytocin to improve empathic motivation and compassion imagery in therapy, it may not be helpful for all clients. Rockliff said, “This research has highlighted that, although oxytocin enhances the CFI experience, there are important individual differences in responses to both oxytocin and CFI.”
Rockliff, Helen, Anke Karl, Kristen McEwan, Jean Gilbert, Marcela Matos, and Paul Gilbert. “Effects of Intranasal Oxytocin on ‘compassion Focused Imagery'” Emotion 11.6 (2011): 1388-396. Print.
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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