Yes, it’s my favourite topic!
Those who have followed my blogs will know that compassion and self-compassion (SC) are key interests of mine. Perhaps then it is not surprising that I come back to them when the world tilts sideways and we all find ourselves in lockdown facing a global pandemic. I believe that they are an essential part of the Positive Psychology response at this time and an opportunity for us, as a discipline, to show that we have assimilated “second wave” PP and gone beyond enhancing the positive. We are also about helping people embrace and balance the dialectics of living in a world where difficult and painful things happen. Suddenly, people are interested in well-being, the message we give now is important. I hope to explain why I think compassion is a fundamental part of this.
Covid-19 is not a good thing
I have seen lots of fantastic advice from Positive Psychologist’s about how to manage your well-being during the current crisis. Plenty of snappy acronyms have been developed encouraging us to cope well. I too have written about the benefits of gratitude, perspective, connecting with nature etc.. at the moment. But we need to be clear, the experience of a global pandemic and lockdown is not a good thing. Yes, potentially we have time to learn a new skill, spend joyful time with our family, clear out that cupboard, cook creative new dishes from ingredients found at the back of the cupboard and so on. There’s lots of great advice from PP to help people achieve these things. However, the reality for many people is that this time does not feel like a blessing. Some people are dying in horrible ways. Doctors and nurses are having to make life and death decisions. Some people have lost their businesses and don’t have the energy to play with their children. For some staying home does not mean staying safe and for many, there is a sense of isolation, anxiety and loneliness. It is hard, there is suffering but this is relevant to PP because what we need is compassion. Compassion for ourselves and for others.
What is compassion?
Compassion involves the recognition of suffering and it’s universality as part of the human experience. It necessitates the ability to empathise with distress and tolerate the associated unpleasant feelings. Crucially, it also comprises the motivation to act to reduce that suffering.
Compassion can be directed towards others, received from others or directed towards ourselves (SC). Evolutionarily, compassion is rooted in the mammalian caregiving and soothing system which developed to enable us to bond with our young, form attachments and ultimately become a social species. Activation of this soothing system occurs when we feel safe and connected. It involves a physiological response including parasympathetic nervous system activity and boosts of opioids and oxytocin. This system helps to balance our two other underlying evolved psychophysiological systems, the threat /defence system (flight, fright or freeze response), which acts to protect us from harm and the drive/reward system which helps us seek out and achieve the things we need to survive and thrive. Thus compassion and the associated caregiving system are important for emotional regulation.
Why is it so important now?
The current situation represents a challenge to our emotional regulation. Our threat system is stimulated, as it needs to be, we are under attack and we need to respond appropriately by seeking out the correct information and taking the necessary action to reduce the threat. For many people this means staying home in relative or actual isolation. However, feeling excessively anxious and experiencing ongoing stress is counterproductive. Likewise, our drive/reward system may also be disturbed. Key Workers may be under excessive pressure to perform, while others may be furloughed so their effort and rewards are disconnected and still others are faced with unemployment and barriers to their normal means of achieving and providing. So our threat and drive systems are out of balance and at a time when we really need our caregiving soothing system to kick in, we are in lock down which means it’s hard for us to connect to people in the ways we normally do. That connection, aside from being a fundamental human need, is the primary way our soothing system is activated.
What can we do?
Compassion and SC training programmes have techniques which can help to promote emotional regulation through helping to boost our care giving /soothing system. These approaches aim to help people:
- Be mindfully aware of their feelings without being overwhelmed by them.
- Promote a sense of common humanity and connection rather than isolation in the face of this challenge. Although our situations vary, the whole of humanity is facing this threat together.
- Encourage kindness rather than judgement for self and others in response to this truly difficult time.
In the current crisis, we need to enable people to acknowledge that life may be difficult and to recognise when others are struggling. We need to help people acknowledge that many of us are feeling pain and may be showing it in different, often annoying or unhelpful, ways but we all have a right to have our suffering recognised and to want to be free of it. At the same time we need to enable a response of kindness to ourselves and others that serves to make things better rather than create divides by judging others actions (and I have seen a lot of that on social media).
My top tips to boost your soothing system and sense of compassion
- Acknowledge and kindly accept your feelings, they are indicators aimed at helping you adapt and cope.
- Reach out and genuinely engage at an emotional level with people as much as you are able to, using whatever technology you have available.
- Savour physical touch and warmth. Hug if it’s safe for you to hug those you live with. If not hug your Teddy or duvet or yourself or put your hand on your heart and feel the warmth. Physical touch is an important stimulator for your soothing system. That is why skin on skin contact between mothers and babies is recommended to promote attachment. If this all sounds a bit too, weird stroke your cat or spend time focusing on rubbing hand cream into your skin. I can guarantee it needs it after all the hand washing.
- Practice loving-kindness meditation to promote a sense of connection, compassion, positive emotions and well-being. There are many free examples on-line. Try a few different ones and then regularly practice one that you like.
- Use the self compassion break when you feel overwhelmed : This is essentially going through the stages discussed above; 1) notice and acknowledge your suffering (this is really hard I feel anxious/depressed /angry/frustrated etc), 2) connect to common humanity (I wonder how many other parents have shouted at their bored children today?), 3) be kind to yourself and others rather than criticise (what do I/they need to help now?).
These techniques and many other useful compassion focused strategies can be found in more detail on Kristen Neff’s website https://self-compassion.org
Promoting compassion in these difficult times is as vital as promoting positivity. It’s good for our individual wellbeing and also what our society needs. Undoubtedly, there will be personal growth following the coronavirus storm and hopefully there will be many silver linings and lessons learned at individual, societal and species levels but in the eye of the storm I believe compassion is key.
About the Author: Sarah Monk