Novel therapy teaches abuse survivors not to fear kindness

February 28, 2014

Survivors of abuse, abandonment and neglect who struggle to understand the kind facial expressions of others - such as a smile - could benefit from a novel therapy tool developed by a mental health researcher with expertise in mood disorders.

Patients suffering from anxiety or depression - such as incest survivors and people with attachment disorders - can be highly self-critical and feel threatened by the compassionate of others, responding to them with fear or grief. This can have crippling consequences for the recovery of patients, who may have a limited ability to form meaningful relationships with others and find it hard to relate to their environment.

Research work conducted for her University of Derby doctorate by Dr Kirsten McEwan, who is now based at Cardiff University's School of Medicine, developed a facial stimulus set to assess the degree to which individuals - who scored highly for self-criticism, depression and anxiety - might struggle to process and receive compassion.

The research found individuals scoring highly for self-criticism struggled to process and pay attention to compassionate emotions. This could be a factor in continuing and block therapeutic interventions.

Further to this work, research funding from the Leverhulme Foundation enabled the development of an online 'compassion game', training individuals to recognise kindness and compassion.

This was achieved using a visual search task to retrain the automatic, unconscious biases towards threatening stimuli commonly shown by people with mood disorders. Participants in the study were asked to identify the faces showing compassion among a number of images of actors displaying critical expressions.

Academic journal, Plos One, has just published Dr McEwan's research. It involved national and international collaborations, and her PhD project was jointly supervised by Professor Paul Gilbert, and Drs Sigrid Lipka and Frances Maratos, at the University of Derby.

Kind Faces

Commenting on the research findings, Dr McEwan said: "We found the more self-critical participants were, the less able they were to find kind and compassionate faces amongst an array of more critical expressions. Conversely, participants of a less self-critical disposition demonstrated an enhanced awareness of kind faces.

"The new facial stimulus set was used in a Cognitive Bias Modification Task (CBMT) comprising an online 'compassion game'. Participants practiced this CBMT compared with a control condition online for two weeks.

"We found significant improvements across a variety of self-reported wellbeing outcome measures; including self-criticism, depression, anxiety and stress. The aim of the game is to desensitise patients to compassionate images and rid them of threatening feelings."

She added: "The NHS is currently grappling with the challenge of making unprecedented efficiency savings whilst improving the nation's mental health. This computer-based intervention offers the potential to deliver a cheap and easily accessible treatment for depression and anxiety, in a non-stigmatising environment."

Good Will Hunting

Inspiration for this research came from the anecdotal evidence of Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust clinicians, who observed that difficulties in processing the emotions of others were a big hindrance to patient recovery. In popular culture, this problem is exemplified in the film Good Will Hunting, in which a young genius struggling to come to terms with his abusive childhood rejects the therapy and friendship offered by those outside his circle of friends.

Dr Sigrid Lipka, University Reader in Psychology at the University of Derby, said: "Kirsten's work, conducted as part of her PhD at the University, is a great example of psychological research bringing together various areas of psychology in an interdisciplinary and international collaboration. It is innovative research with real potential for creating considerable practical impact in clinical settings."

There is increasing evidence to show that the ability to process compassion from others triggers the release of natural chemicals such as endorphins and opiates; which aid a significant reduction in anxiety, depression and self-criticism, and regulates how threatened patients feel during therapy.

Explore further: Stopping smoking linked to improved mental health

More information: McEwan K, Gilbert P, Dandeneau S, Lipka S, Maratos F, et al. (2014) "Facial Expressions Depicting Compassionate and Critical Emotions: The Development and Validation of a New Emotional Face Stimulus Set." PLoS ONE 9(2): e88783. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088783

Related Stories

Stopping smoking linked to improved mental health

February 13, 2014
The researchers say the effect sizes are equal or larger than those of antidepressant treatment for mood and anxiety disorders.

Ability to recognise expression tied to listening and emotion

January 6, 2014
West Australian researchers have developed two new tests that examine a typical person's ability to recognise basic facial expressions.

New study shows cognitive behaviour therapy effective in treating older Australians with anxiety and depression

October 4, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—New research from Macquarie University has revealed that cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can be effective in treating comorbid depression and anxiety in older Australians, with improvements continuing ...

Effective treatment for youth anxiety disorders has lasting benefit

February 27, 2014
A study published in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that the majority of youth with moderate to severe anxiety disorders responded well to acute treatment ...

Compassion isn't the key to NHS failings according to report

September 18, 2013
Compassion is not the answer to systemic failings within the NHS, according to a medical ethics expert from the University of East Anglia.

Even without a diagnosis, psychiatric symptoms affect work outcomes

January 23, 2014
Symptoms such as insomnia and emotional distress account for much of the work impact of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, reports a study in the February issue of Medical Care.

Recommended for you

New study rebuts the claim that antidepressants do not work

August 18, 2017
A theory that has gained considerable attention in international media, including Newsweek and the CBS broadcast 60 minutes, suggests that antidepressant drugs such as the SSRIs do not exert any actual antidepressant effect. ...

Should I stay or should I leave? Untangling what goes on when a relationship is being questioned

August 17, 2017
Knowing whether to stay in or leave a romantic relationship is often an agonizing experience and that ambivalence can have negative consequences for health and well-being.

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

History of stress increases miscarriage risk, says new review

August 17, 2017
A history of exposure to psychological stress can increase the risk of miscarriage by upto 42 per cent, according to a new review.

Study finds children pay close attention to potentially threatening information, avoid eye contact when anxious

August 17, 2017
We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues – it helps us understand a person's emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. ...

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.