COMMENTARY

Acts of Kindness, Empathy Bolster Mental Health

Lina Haji, PsyD

May 20, 2021

Sigmund Freud said, "Out of your vulnerabilities will come greatest strength." What exactly did Freud mean by this?

Many aspects of mental health treatment include cognitive restructuring, behavioral changes, emotion processing, and setting boundaries. These are all critical aspects of treatment, but what about kindness and compassion?

We often forget that kindness requires us to be vulnerable and take a risk at times. Being kind to others is not always easy, and it is not always an automatic reaction. Vulnerability often involves risk, but the outcomes often outweigh fear.

Freud was highlighting that being kind, open, and honest will often result in strong character and resilience. In turn, it will help others. Psychology and psychiatry have proved time and time again that empathy, compassion, and kindness have numerous benefits for mental and physical health for both the giver and the receiver.

From a biological perspective, we know that acts of kindness signal the brain to release serotonin and dopamine, known as "feel good transmitters," and endorphins, which in turn lessen pain, depression, and anxiety. According to Waguih W. Ishak, MD, a psychiatrist affiliated with Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles,1 in addition to boosting oxytocin and dopamine, being kind can increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. Kindness and compassion have been shown to release oxytocin, known as the "love hormone," which increases self-esteem, trust, connection, and optimism. Oxytocin also reduces blood pressure and has been dubbed the "cardioprotective" hormone. According to Kelli Harding, MD, MPH, a psychiatrist affiliated with Columbia University in New York,2 kindness can extend the lifespan. Research from Emory University in Atlanta has shown that, when an individual is kind to another, the brain's reward centers light up – resulting in a "helper's high." Thus, kindness is self-reinforcing.3

Kindness leads to a greater sense of connection to others and a lessening in feelings of isolation. Small acts of kindness build up compassion in oneself. Research indicates that kindness doesn't just positively affect the giver and receiver but can also benefit onlookers. An article in Psychology Today,4 suggests that those who witness acts of kindness are also more likely to "pay it forward," resulting in a domino effect. Along these same lines, altruistic people, specifically those who engage in charitable donations, expressed higher levels of overall happiness according to a 2010 Harvard Business School survey.5

"You can't pour from an empty cup" is a trendy quote making its way around social media. Before we can be kind and compassionate to others, we must first be kind and compassionate to ourselves. In today's world, productivity and pressure-filled environments consume us daily. We often find ourselves skipping meals, forgetting to connect with loved ones, missing breaks, and even neglecting our sleep. It is virtually impossible to care for others when we are depleted ourselves. Sometimes not prioritizing ourselves can result in collateral damage. We may become short-tempered, irritable, moody, and overwhelmed. At this point kindness, compassion, and empathy toward others are likely to be absent. Once we replenish ourselves, by taking time off, indulging in a nice meal, exercising, we are more likely to respond as opposed to react, ask others about themselves, and engage in overall positive interactions throughout our day. Kindness is best fostered by being kind to ourselves to sustain our own well-being and by being kind to others in order to maintain the cycle. For clinicians who have been pushed to respond to various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, self-care has never been more important.

COVID-19 has been difficult for everyone, particularly the elderly and vulnerable populations. However, kindness has proved to be an overwhelming response as many businesses and individuals have taken to volunteering time and resources for those in need. Even big corporations have chipped in. For example, Lyft and Uber – in a partnership with the White House – are now offering free rides to vaccine sites, and several local businesses have donated personal protective equipment to hospitals and assisted living facilities.

Kindness and empathy are ever present in the field of mental health, medicine, and substance use treatment. The very act of caring for another involves kindness. In medicine, empathy has been defined as "an emotional experience between an observer and a subject in which the observer, based on visual and auditory cues, identifies and transiently experiences the subject's emotional state."6

As mental health professionals, we receive empathy training early on in our schooling – increasingly so over the last decade. Research has indicated that trusting relationships between clinicians and patients result in optimal care. Evidence-based communication styles are being widely implemented. This entails using nonjudgmental language, open-ended questions, and active listening skills, for example. In addition, the mental health professionals have our conscious and unconscious judgments. If empathy training is provided, we can learn to acknowledge our biases and mitigate them. Lastly, empathy training has been proven to assist with destigmatization, increase in treatment seeking, and overall better outcomes.

Substance use treatment, which often focuses on cognition and behavior changing, boundaries, and family dynamics, also requires support and kindness. Although it is not an empirically based "treatment," Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has used kindness for decades.

Step 12 of AA's 12-step program, which was developed by two people with alcohol use disorder in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, is as follows: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs."

Once AA members are on solid ground with their sobriety, they are urged to help others in their recovery. This process provides many benefits. When individuals are concerned about someone else, they are less focused on themselves. This helps the individuals in recovery to decrease their rumination and "get out of themselves." It also allows for the AA member to be kind and helpful to an individual who is suffering, thereby expressing kindness, compassion, and empathy. This act of "paying it forward" produces a domino effect that has withstood the test of time as evidenced by the ever-growing fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Several small acts of kindness can help us as clinicians and our patients:

  1. Practice self-care.

  2. Take a half day off from your practice.

  3. Give staff a half day off.

  4. Call a family member or friend and ask them how they are doing. Then engage in active listening and refrain from giving advice.

  5. Donate to a homeless shelter or volunteer your time at a charity.

  6. Give a stranger a compliment.

  7. Surprise someone with a small gift.

  8. Send a loved one a letter instead of a text.

  9. Pick up litter.

  10. Acknowledge family and friends who gave you extra support during the pandemic.

  11. Take baked goods to your office.

  12. Help a neighbor with groceries.

  13. Leave a generous tip.

  14. Play soft music in your office.

In conclusion, kindness, empathy, and compassion are vital concepts that are not just fluffy theories. They have vast mental, physical, and social benefits for us and our patients.

References

1. Cedars-Sinai staff. The Science of Kindness. 2019 Feb 13. Cedars-Sinai blog.

2. Harding K. The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness. Atria Books, 2019.

3. Ritvo E. BeKiindr. Momosa Publishing, 2017.

4. Svoboda E. "Pay it Forward." Psychology Today. Last reviewed 2016 Jun 9.

5. Aknin LB et al. "Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal." Harvard Business School. Working Paper 11-038. 2010.

6. Hirsch EM. AMA J Ethics. Virtual Mentor. 2007;9(6):423-7.

Lina Haji, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in psychodiagnostic assessment, forensic assessment, dual diagnosis, serious and persistent mental illness, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and substance abuse treatment. She practices in Miami and has no conflicts of interest.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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