Heidemarie Laurent, who became Penn State's second Bennett Pierce Professor of Caring and Compassion in July, conducts cutting-edge research on how interpersonal relationships — starting with experiences in the womb and continuing to develop throughout life — shape people’s ability to handle stress. She says that anyone can build resilience, even when faced with difficult circumstances.
Stressful situations are an unavoidable part of life, Laurent said, but we can restore a measure of wellbeing in the face of stress by focusing on what is happening in the moment. "Successful approaches often begin with dropping the story of what should be and noticing what is actually here, particularly the ways we may be holding or resisting in the mind and body. Is your heart rate elevated? Are your muscles clenched or relaxed? You can start to shift out of this resistance mode toward acceptance with intention, starting with opening in the body through the breath and posture, and ultimately allowing the mind to open."
Acceptance of the situation is important and often misunderstood, Laurent said. "It doesn't require pretending that the situation is just or right. But fighting the situation diverts energy from being able to step back and decide 'what can I do here that will best take care of me and others in this situation?"
"A small-scale example happened last weekend with my 5-year-old twins in the car," Laurent explained. "We were in a rush to get to the strawberry patch before it closed and got stuck in a traffic jam. As the kids began getting upset and crying, ‘But what if we’re too late?’ I said, 'we can be in this traffic and making ourselves miserable freaking out about whether we're going to make it in time, or we can just be in this traffic jam; those are our choices.'"
Laurent acknowledged that acceptance takes practice and isn't always easy to do. "There may be some larger injustice that you are noticing and are really activated about," she added. “Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation to the unjust situation, but rather a clear-eyed look at what it is and how we are involved, which may actually free us up to take more skillful action toward making things better.”
In partnership with her colleagues and students, Laurent has led and studied mindfulness-based interventions for expecting parents and is building a community of contemplative practice in which people come together to promote social and racial justice and practice mindfulness. She said that "the events of this past year have really highlighted how connected we all are and how important it is to recognize and honor our connections, both to other humans and our non-human environment."
One of Laurent's recent projects analyzed effects of parents' mindfulness on the way they interact with their babies at a neurological level. "What really struck me is the more mindful mothers were able to be more responsive to their child's positive expressions and find opportunities to experience playfulness and joy," she said. “This is the opposite of what we found previously in depressed mothers, who were not hypersensitive to their baby’s negative expressions like crying, but instead were under-responsive in brain areas related to reward and positive emotion. In this way, teaching mindfulness skills may help protect new parents against a pattern that promotes postpartum depression and harm to parent-child relationships.”
Comparing acts of kindness and compassion to plant fertilizer, Laurent said that "each person's chromosome mix is like the seeds they start with, and our own actions or actions of others can help grow our emotional and social well-being. We can provide more fertile soil to anyone."
Laurent, also an associate professor of human development and family studies, said she is excited to develop her interests in mindfulness and community-engaged research in collaboration with colleagues at the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and Parents and Children Together, who focus on promoting the health and well-being of children, youth and families.
"Dr. Laurent is focused on implementing cutting-edge, practical approaches that involve the cultivation of awareness, acceptance and compassion – mental skills and dispositions that research shows can help parents, teachers, adolescents and children to manifest resilience in the face of stress, and to cultivate a life of meaning, service and flourishing," said Robert Roeser, the University's first Bennett Pierce Professor of Caring and Compassion. "I’m so excited to welcome and soon to partner with her on projects of common interest!"
Penn State alumna and philanthropist Edna Bennett Pierce endowed the professorships in Caring and Compassion in the College of Health and Human Development in 2015, saying that “life well-lived has to be shared and done with love and compassion.”