Published: Irish Independent
Author: Malie Coyne
As we find ourselves in the unprecedented situation of coping with a global pandemic, anxiety, fear and overwhelm have understandably become a feature of our daily lives, as we come to terms with the ever-changing situation. Like many of you out there, I’ve been feeling a bit unhinged lately, as if a rug of safety has been pulled from under me. Whilst this feeling exists; so too does a strong sense of hope and solidarity.
Our universal human need for “compassion”, both for others and ourselves, has the power to counterbalance fear and restore a soothing sense of calm and connection. Compassion is a foundation for sharing our aliveness and building a more humane world (Martin Lowenthal). In our history, it is during our most challenging times that humans have shown one another the most compassion, evidenced by countless heart-warming examples of communities coming together to help the most vulnerable all around Ireland and beyond.
Like the ripple created by throwing a pebble in a pond, one act of compassion can have an effect that can reach around the world. Whilst we don’t yet have a vaccine for COVID-19, its treatment is dependent on the actions taken by each and every member of our human community to help stop its spread and save lives. Taking these precautionary steps for you and for your family is your way of truly taking care of others and showing compassion.
Stress gives us access to our hearts
When humans encounter stressful situations, not only do we release adrenaline to spur us into action, but we also release a stress hormone called oxytocin, our “cuddle hormone”, which drives us to become more caring, compassionate and connected together. Oxytocin fine tunes our brain’s social instincts, enhances our empathy and makes us more willing to support the people we care about, with incredible benefits for our overall wellbeing.
How we respond to stressors has a significant impact on how we cope with that stress, and the type of impact it will bear on us mentally and physically. During times of stress, what empowers humans the most is to use those very opportunities we are trying to survive as opportunities to thrive. When we view our stress response as being helpful to us, our physical response changes, favouring courage over anxiety. When we choose to connect with others under stress, we are creating resilience together. On this, Kelly McGonigal shared:
“Stress gives us access to our hearts: the compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart working so hard to give you strength and energy. And when you choose to view stress in this way… you’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges and you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone”.
Whilst we may be limited in how we can connect with one another at the moment due to “social distancing”, we are showing great adaptability and creativity in communicating support to one another. Although we are physically apart, connecting to one another seems to be coming second nature to us.
The healing balm of self-compassion
The concern I have is that many of us may be forgetting our own needs in all of this, especially those caring for others or who endure challenges. It can be so much easier to be kind to someone else than to yourself, can’t it? This is where the power of self-compassion comes in, which taps into our body’s self-healing system, reducing fear and anxiety, even helping to strengthen our immune systems.
During this crisis, I call on you to remember that self-compassion is just as important in improving your mental and physical health as having compassion for others. One way to help you is to adopt a self-compassionate approach to COVID-19, adapted from the work of Dr. Chris Germer and Dr. Kristin Neff (Centre for Mindful Self-Compassion):
1. Common humanity
Common humanity is our shared human experience of life, its joys and its pain. If we feel that we’re the only person struggling with a problem, we’ll end up feeling isolated. But if we recognise that this is all part of being human right now, we’re far more likely to open ourselves up to connecting with others and feeling stronger within ourselves.
Perhaps there is a silver lining in all of this? In the fast pace of life we found ourselves in, could this be our opportunity to slow down, to go back to basics, to reassess our priorities, to connect with the people we love, to repair old wounds? When you hear of someone struggling, imagine yourself in their shoes and say “They are just like me”. Or when you’re having a difficult moment coping, remind yourself that “This is how it feels to be a human right now. Others feel as I do. I am not alone”.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and without judgement. When people accept their emotions rather than judge themselves for being emotional, the emotions tend to run their natural and relatively short-lived course. At a time like this, ask yourself: “Is it possible to sit with these difficult circumstances and at the same time be at peace?” (Jan Frazier)
Become aware of how you feel about the virus and the impact of it for you in your life. Are you feeling anxious, confused, disempowered? If so where can you feel it in your body? Do you find yourself becoming preoccupied with the virus via news and social media? Rather than judge your thoughts or your feelings, I wonder can you sit with them and say “This is really hard for me right now. This is understandable. This will pass”.
Self-compassion is having a kind attitude towards yourself and relating to yourself with warmth just as you would comfort a close friend going through a tough time. Being kinder to yourself helps you to manage stress, activates your coping skills, releases your brain’s feel-good chemicals, lifting your mood, encouraging you to reach out to others.
Treating yourself with kindness opens the door to greater calm and peace. If you are feeling anxious, try putting your hand on your heart or another soothing place, helping to calm yourself through touch. What do you need to do for yourself to calm some of that anxiety? Perhaps you’ve absorbed enough information for now and need to switch off?
A few times a day, find ways to rest and allow space to open up to yourself. I know this is harder when children are at home, but using moments to soothe yourself rather than activate fear may really help. What do you find nourishing? Going for a walk? Dancing like no one’s watching? Having special family time? Chatting to a friend? Spirituality? Creativity? Playing music? Volunteering your time safely? Having a good laugh? Keeping up your routines? Whatever it is, find your own potion and give yourself the gift of soothing and love.
If there’s anything this virus has taught us, it’s that we as a global human community are in this together, and the best way through is to stand together in solidarity and look out for each other and ourselves. Awakening our inner calm and compassion seems a good place to start.