Welcome to the latest in our series of short blogs to help you stay safe, sane, and supported during the current crisis. Today’s blog is about self-compassion, something we have been talking a lot about in our resilience coaching sessions during the Covid-19 outbreak.

During times of stress, it can be easy to lose sight of our own needs and wellbeing. Self-compassion is important for resilience and wellbeing as it helps us to step back, take care of and nurture ourselves, particularly at times when we may be struggling with difficult thoughts and emotions, or when we feel overwhelmed by stress or anxiety.

Why do we need self-compassion?

In order to understand the importance of self-compassion, we need to take a look at how we regulate emotion. Paul Gilbert, a psychologist at Derby University, identified three systems of emotion regulation in his Compassion Focused Therapy model: threat, drive and affiliative.

When we are in the threat system, we experience a surge in adrenaline and cortisol which prepares our bodies to fight, flee, or freeze. This is associated with threat emotions such as anxiety and anger.

When we are in the drive emotion regulation system we experience an urge to achieve or get something we need or want. Our successes lead to a rise in dopamine in our brains that gives us a buzz of excitement, reward, or accomplishment.

Our affiliative emotion regulation system is activated through our connections with other people and reflects the calm, safe contentment of our early attachment relationships. In this system we are not under threat and do not need to achieve anything. Instead, our sympathetic nervous system is quietened and we are able to explore, create, and innovate.

However, when our perceptions of threat trigger activation of the threat emotion regulation system it can become hard to access our affiliative system to soothe and calm ourselves. We are likely to become hyper-vigilant, looking out for further signs of threat, withdraw from our social relationships, and let go of activities that normally help us to rest and recover.

Developing self-compassion is a way of re-connecting with our internal systems of soothing to calm our stress response, grow more positive emotions and feelings of wellbeing.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion is about having a sensitivity to our own suffering and a desire to alleviate it. There are six key attributes of compassion that can help us to deal with feelings of threat.

  • Care for wellbeing – respecting how we feel in response to the threat, and having concern for our own wellbeing
  • Sensitivity – being able to notice signs and symptoms of distress, be aware of our own early warning signs that things are not feeling ok
  • Sympathy – the ability to understand and acknowledge how the threat we are experiencing is making us feel
  • Distress tolerance – being able to bear the upset and awfulness of the situation
  • Empathy – the ability to know how bad we feel and to know what we need to start feeling better
  • Non-judgement – understanding and accepting that we are feeling bad without self-criticism or judgement

None of these skills are new. As a social species, we are programmed for compassion and are usually able to demonstrate these skills relatively easily in relation to other people. However, it can be more challenging to apply them to ourselves.

How to generate more self-compassion

To develop self-compassion through improved connection with the feelings of soothing and safety associated with the affiliative emotion regulation system, there are a number of skills we can use:

Attention

Pay attention to any upsetting emotions or body sensations. Try using mindfulness exercises, such as the body scan, to tune into how you are feeling, and learn to notice changes in your body or your emotions that might signify that you are feeling under threat.

Imagery

Using compassionate imagery can help you connect with the affiliative emotion regulation system, calming sympathetic nervous system arousal and stimulating parasympathetic nervous system arousal, endorphins, and oxytocin. Prepare yourself by using slow rhythmic breathing exercises to help calm the body. When you are settled and comfortable, see if you can imagine a place where you can feel calm and safe. It may be an actual memory of somewhere you have been or an image from a book or a film. Or perhaps try building self-compassion by focusing on memories of times you did well, helped others, or experienced positive emotions.

Reasoning

Notice judgement, self-criticism, or unhelpful rumination and try stepping back, unhooking from the difficult thoughts. Writing the thoughts down can help you do this. Ask yourself what you would say to someone else in this situation or try looking for another way of seeing the situation by using flexible thinking skills

Behaviour

Try thinking about which behaviours help you to feel calm, safe, and connected. Be kind to yourself, allow yourself to take a break, or have the courage to take action and overcome obstacles that may be holding you back. Think about what you need to do to grow and develop and schedule activities that both challenge you but also allow you time to rest and recover.

Sensory experiences

Often neglected, we can use our whole sensory experience to reconnect with feelings of calm and safety. Try finding sensory experiences that have particular resonance for you, which help you feel grounded. For example, smells are particularly evocative of soothing and connection. There might be visual or mental images that remind you of happy times or body sensations (tastes or sounds) associated with feelings of comfort.

Compassionate feelings

Experiencing compassionate feelings from others and developing compassionate feelings towards others and yourself will help to reduce sympathetic nervous system arousal and grow feelings of calm and contentment. Try using the loving-kindness mindfulness meditation to grow your feelings of compassion and ability to have sympathy and empathy for yourself and other people.

Remember that, whilst we have evolved to have compassion for others, learning to have self-compassion takes practice. At times our habitual ways of thinking, self-criticism, or judgements can get in the way and it can take courage to overcome the blocks and obstacles that our tricky brains throw in our way.

If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of our other blogs in this series. You might also like to join our Facebook group UR Resilient, where members are busy sharing creative and inspiring ideas for staying positive during this challenging time.