How would you describe what compassion feels like? To some, there’s an idealized notion of what compassion is. It can feel calm, pleasant, and peaceful. Often, however, you practice compassion in the most unpleasant of moments, like when you have to give someone devastating, life-changing news. Compassion can often encompass seemingly opposite emotions, like when you feel upset but also feel love, or sadness mixed with gratitude. Given that this kind of sympathetic awareness often evokes seemingly paradoxical emotions and reactions, a key to understanding how people react compassionately lies in the science of compassion. Specifically, what happens in your body when you feel compassion? In this installment of The Science of Compassion series, Kelly McGonigal examines the physical changes in your body—what it looks like in your brain, in your nervous system, and your physical, pounding heart—as compassion unfolds. Perhaps most importantly, she considers how understanding the biology of compassion can help you engage with suffering.
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