New Trinity research examines effect of compassion in therapy

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is a new form of psychotherapy which promotes compassion

Photo Credit: Joe McCallion

The stereotypes we all associate with therapy are continually being challenged by recent developments in Psychological research. The image of a Freud-like therapist blaming your father for your fear of heights while you lie across a couch is a far-cry from the latest psychological intervention techniques.

Notably, Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is a new form of psychotherapy which promotes compassion as a means of dealing with problematic patterns of thinking such as anxiety, disgust, and anger.

The therapeutic approach was developed in 2006 by clinical psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert from the University of Derby. Gilbert aimed to address difficulties with shame and self-criticism, which are widely seen as factors contributing to a range of mental illnesses and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and trauma.

The compassion-based model integrates cognitive-behavioural therapy, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology to tackle the presenting difficulties.

CFT was also inspired largely by Buddhist teachings of compassion and mindfulness. It encourages the cultivation of compassion in patients towards both themselves and others.  Empathy and understanding are key, promoting feelings of tolerance and acceptance when dealing with distress.

Thus, ancient practices of mindfulness and compassion are combined with very modern psycho-therapeutic approaches.

Patients are encouraged to develop their skills in mindfulness, compassionate balancing of thoughts, and compassionate acts towards the self.

For example, they may be encouraged to imagine that they’re talking to themselves and re-frame their thoughts in a compassionate way. By utilising compassion, you can engage with your suffering and the suffering of others through acknowledgement, and a commitment to work towards alleviating it.

CFT has been established as a promising approach, particularly when dealing with those who have problems with feelings of self-criticism and shame. New findings from researchers at Trinity College Dublin and St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services support this claim. Compassion focused therapy was previously shown to have positive results on diagnostically specific populations.

The Dublin-based researchers examined the effectiveness of the approach amongst a group of those experiencing a variety of different mental health problems such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and personality disorders.

A control group underwent treatment as usual while other participants engaged in group CFT for nine weeks. The study observed significant improvements in scores for fear of self-compassion, psychopathology and social safety in the CFT group.

Improvements in shame and self-criticism scores were also noted. This supported the idea that compassion is an effective tool in group intervention for a wide variety of mental health problems.

This supports the idea that CFT groups can operate according to a trans-diagnostic model and facilitate individuals with a variety of mental health issues.

The positive results of the study illustrate the value of addressing underlying psychological processes such as shame and self-criticism. As Dr. Jillian Doyle of St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services puts it:

“[the therapy] uses experiential and cognitive techniques to help people learn ways to come out of their threat system… the system that our body goes into when we experience emotions like anxiety, anger, sadness or shame. It’s the system that helps us to survive”.

Dr. David Hevey, the head of Trinity’s School of Psychology took part in the research experiment. He noted the importance of academic research in the provision of clinical services.

“Compassion focused therapy addresses issues of shame and self-criticism, which are common and can contribute to numerous mental health problems. The research shows that by reducing shame and self-criticism we can alleviate distress among adults attending clinical services.  

The research highlights the importance of treating the core presenting difficulties and not focusing on the diagnostic labels. The fact that the intervention was run in a group setting means it offers the potential to efficiently help meet the needs of those with mental health needs in a cost-effective manner.”

CFT thus has promising implications for future therapeutic groups. By increasing an individual’s sense of compassion the groups aim to decrease feelings of shame and self-criticism. So next time you’re feeling down, why not try to approach your suffering with warmth and understanding. Self-compassion is key – so be kind to yourself.