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Learn to be compassionate without suffering burn out

Instruction in compassion – also called Compassion Cultivation Training – is a new evidence-based course in which The Danish Centre for Mindfulness under The Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University, provides instruction in how to be compassionate without suffering burn out yourself. In conjunction with the course, a PhD project will uncover in detail how people react to compassion training, right down to the cellular level.

Empathy is exhausting. Ask a mother who has a child who is not thriving. Or think back to a situation where a person who was lonely or in pain motivated you to provide comfort and help, but where the compassion you showed ended up wearing you down.

It is well-documented that relatives and healthcare professionals can often become overtaxed and suffer burn out from involvement in other people's suffering. But this does not have to be the case, and some help to avoid this can be found in one’s self. The remedy is called Compassion Cultivation Training. It is an eight-week evidence-based programme consisting of meditation training and instruction in compassion with the aim of cultivating loving-kindness.

"Whereas empathy can drain you for energy, Compassion Cultivation Training contains an active aspect, which means that people can learn to receive energy from themselves giving,” says Lone Overby Fjorback. She is a medical specialist in psychiatry, PhD and head of The Danish Centre for Mindfulness at The Department of Clinical Medicine, Aarhus University.

"The principle is that, to begin with, you have to work with yourself to escape from a way of thinking in which we operate with a giver and a receiver. It is about getting rid of the roles, so that there is no longer a trade or an unconscious keeping score of 'something for something'. Because when you give in a healthy way, you are giving because you can, and that does not drain you in the same way," explains Lone Overby Fjorback when describing the basic principle.

Stanford behind the technique

Stanford University in USA has developed and tested the specific techniques used in compassion training, which will be offered to all who are interested at Emdrup from October. The course will be offered again in both Aarhus and Copenhagen from January 2017.

The course manager is Psychologist Nanja Holland Hansen. She has spent six years working with the techniques at the Stanford, who are pioneers of the method. At Stanford, studies have shown that compassion training reduces symptoms of depression, stress and burnout so efficiently that both private and public hospitals in the USA have implemented the training as a way of looking after their staff, who experience increased well-being and resilience.

In addition to holding the university’s courses, Nanja Holland Hansen will also write a PhD with Lone Overby Fjorback as supervisor. The research project will test the effect of specific tools on Danish users via questionnaires and blood samples, which will be used to map the activity of the genes that encode positive and negative stress respectively, at a cellular level.

Buddhist principles in a secular scientific context                              

The project is a natural extension of the other work being carried out in the Danish Centre for Mindfulness, which conducts research into the psychological and physiological mechanisms of stress and stress reduction, with the goal of helping us as a society learn more about the best ways to promote mental health.

The researchers at the centre work together with the world's leading research institutions in areas such as stress and mindfulness, and they are not afraid to integrate ancient Buddhist meditation principles into a secular scientific context.

"However, there is nothing mystical about compassion training. It is well-known that stress largely is a question of how prepared people are to deal with difficult situations. But beginning to train compassion, instead of taking for granted that it is something that anybody can go out and practice, is a new development. Some people have never learned it, and everybody can become better at it by means of training," says Lone Overby Fjorback.

Facts about stress according to The Danish Centre for Mindfulness:

  • Every day, 35,000 Danes are on sick leave from work due to stress.
  • Stress costs DKK 14 billion a year in absence due to sickness and healthcare sector expenditure.
  • A high level of stress is associated with an increased risk of a number of diseases and premature death.

Evidence-based stress reduction by means of mindfulness:

  • Compassion Cultivation Training is a course developed at Stanford University in the USA. It builds on well-documented meditation principles from mindfulness.
  • Mindfulness is a special form of awareness that has shown it can improve our health.
  • The scientifically recognised mindfulness programmes are MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), which have been developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the USA, and also MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy), which has been developed on the basis of MBSR at the University of Oxford in England for the prevention of depression.
  • Around 740 clinics in the world currently make use of MBSR or MBCT in the treatment or prevention of stress and depression.
  • The British Parliament has recently adopted the "Mindful Nation UK" plan, in which it is recommended that the above-named mindfulness programmes are made available in e.g. the healthcare sector. 

Further information:

Lone Overby Fjorback, PhD, Clinical Associate Professor, Consultant, certified MBSR instructor, as well as head of the Danish Centre for Mindfulness, Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University.
Email: lone.overby.fjorback@clin.au.dk
Mobile: (+45) 2238 5426

Nanja Holland Hansen, Psychologist, certified instructor in Compassion Cultivation Training, as well as course manager of the Danish courses under Aarhus University.
Email: nanja@compassioncultivation.com
Mobile: (+45) 2213 1805