07/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Healing Power of Compassion: Actress Finds Remedy For Stress With Her "Big Give"

"It is better to give than to receive" is a phrase that has become so commonplace, it's easy to take the meaning lightly. Many of us have felt that wonderful feeling that accompanies making someone's day a little brighter. Have we really thought about how powerful giving can be -- not just to the recipients but to the giver as well?

Whether it is part of a profession, volunteer work, or being a caregiver to a family member, being of service can have a significant effect on one's emotional and spiritual health. People just seem so much happier when they are part of something greater than themselves.

The healing effects of compassion and altruism have been subjects of ongoing research. Numerous studies suggest that helping others may influence a person's physical as well as mental health.

At Stanford University School of Medicine, a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education was formed earlier this year. Part of their mission is "to undertake a rigorous scientific study of the neural, mental, and social bases of compassion and altruistic behavior" and "to explore ways in which compassion and altruism can be cultivated within an individual as well as within the society..."

Allan Luks, author of The Healing Power of Doing Good, surveyed over 3,000 people involved in volunteering. His research included documenting the phenomenon that he called the "helper's high," which results from giving to others on a regular basis. A helper's high consists of sensations of warmth, greater energy, and a euphoric feeling. It was found to have long-term effects such as increased self-worth and reduced signs of stress.

In his book Aging Well, George E. Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist and researcher, found that behaviors focused on helping others are among the important influences on health and happiness.

Behind every study are real people with real stories.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Tasia Valenza, an actress who shared her story of how giving back has brought her the peace of mind that she sought for decades.

Tasia Valenza had a very successful career as a television actress, earning an Emmy nomination for her role as Dottie in All My Children. Tasia transitioned into voice-overs, and she is now one of Hollywood's top voice-over artists. Even with all of her success, Tasia says that her greatest role in life has been one of giving back.

Happily married with three children of her own, Tasia felt like she needed to do something to help millions of children around the world who are orphaned. As a mother, she couldn't bear the thought of children not having a mother and a family. After watching Oprah's TV show "The Big Give," Tasia was incredibly inspired to find a great children's organization and challenge herself to doing her own "big give."

PF: Tasia, thanks for meeting with me and sharing your story. How did you go about choosing the organization for your "big give"?

TV: Thanks, Patricia, for letting me share with the Huffington Post family -- which is kind of a global family -- my story that brought me to a greater awareness of the needs of children around the world. There are so many great organizations worldwide that help children. The organization that resonated with me the most is one called SOS Children's Villages.

PF: Can you tell me a little bit about SOS?

TV: SOS was founded in 1949. Right now, they have almost 500 villages in 132 countries, including the United States. More than 73,000 children are being raised in their villages. Through their programs of education, family strengthening, medical care and outreach programs, the lives of over 1 million people are being impacted each year.

What impresses me the most about SOS is their commitment to the family structure. The orphans get a mother, and all siblings stay together. They live in an SOS village, where their medical, educational, and social needs are met.

PF: What do you mean when you say, "The orphans get a mother"?

TV: An SOS mother is provided for each home. She may be without children of her own, or she may be an older woman who has already raised her family. These loving women are members of the local community, and they participate in an extensive two-year training and apprenticeship program before receiving a family of their own.

I wish I had two years of training before I became a mother!

PF: So how are your going about your "big give"?

My husband and I started by sponsoring a few children, and a few more, and a few more. We are up to 22 and enjoy every minute of it! Our "big give" goal is to secure 100 sponsorships before the end of 2009. Through spreading the word to family and friends, a total of 88 children have been sponsored so far. With the current economic climate, you would have thought that I picked the worst time to try to find sponsors, but people are coming out of the woodwork to participate! When we get to 100, I'm hoping Oprah will give it a shout out and turn 100 sponsored orphans into 100,000.

PF: What is the greatest impact that getting involved with SOS has had on your life?

TV: The incredible peace of mind I feel that I hadn't experienced for a long time. I am someone who has suffered from low-level anxiety for as long as I can remember. After I became a mother, I experienced the incredible joy that comes from that, but surprisingly my anxiety also increased.

Not only did I feel responsible for my own children, but I became acutely aware of the plight of children all over the world who were living without a loving parent. My anxiety increased a hundredfold not only for my own children's safety, health and happiness, but for the ones down the block to the ones throughout the world.

By 2010 it is estimated that there will be 45 million orphans worldwide. Only 1% ever gets adopted. The awareness of children not having a parent was insufferable to me.

Being involved with SOS has been the best tonic for anxiety and stress that I've ever found. The joy of giving is truly intoxicating! I wish I could bottle this feeling. I used to try to self-medicate my anxiety with shopping, food, and other distractions. Now as another child gets adopted, I feel more and more peace. My doctor and therapist are thrilled with my improvement.

PF: How has being a sponsor of 22 children impacted your own family?

TV: I have the most incredibly supportive and loving husband. Every time I ask, "Can we sponsor a few more children?" he is up for it. He has also joined me in my mission. He is a green builder, and every time he builds a house for a family, he sponsors a child on their behalf.

Our own children love writing letters and drawing pictures for the children we have sponsored. It's been a wonderful way for them to experience empathy, compassion, and gratitude early in life. I don't have to tell them how fortunate they are anymore. I just tell them it's time to write a letter to Sara from Chad or Omer from Israel.

PF: Has your "big give" had an impact in your local community?

TV: At our children's school, four classes of three year olds sponsored one child per class. At three years old, these kids understand in a concrete way that they can have a powerful impact on someone's life. The children's enthusiasm has trickled out to the entire school community.

I have brought the program to two other schools, and I am producing a video in hopes of using it as model for other schools around Los Angeles and throughout the United States.

PF: I can see how sponsoring these children is a healthy addiction! You've inspired me to sponsor two kids already. I have already received letters from their mothers, as well as pictures, drawings, and messages from the kids. Every time I open these letters, tears of joy stream down my face. It is truly an honor to be part of your "big give" and part of the SOS family. I think I'm getting a taste of that "helper's high."

TV: Not only is giving addictive, it can be infectious!

PF: Tasia, it seems like destiny for you to be a voice for SOS. You started your career with "All My Children" and your life's mission developed into helping children all over the globe.

TV: It has been a blessing to be involved with SOS as well as to offer my voice to their official video, which is a powerful testimony to the incredible impact they have had in so many lives:

PF: Wow! What a powerful video (Kleenex required). Tasia, thanks for sharing your inspiring story. Best of luck with your "big give."

TV: Thanks for spreading the word to help these deserving children! I invite the Huffington Post readers to join me in my "big give" (see official website) or to find a way to give in another way that truly inspires them.

Huffington Post

I'd love to hear your stories of how compassion and giving has affected your life.

How were you able to draw upon your talents to help others?