Mindful Self-Compassion as an Antidote to COVID-19 Anxiety
The last twelve months have undeniably been hard. Although we are all weathering the same storm of lockdowns with the often hidden, but ever-present undercurrent of COVID-19 related anxiety, we are clinging to our own individual rafts, boats and vessels. As social contact is once again reduced, the people who we turn to for perspective and care can seem far away, but the pressure of work, childcare and financial responsibilities loom just as large as ever before.
When more and more barriers, responsibilities and changes are slopped messily onto our already overfilled plates, it’s easy to slip into a place of self-criticism, judgement and comparison. While cracking the whip on your own flank can be an effective way to keep yourself moving, it is ultimately unsustainable to berate yourself into becoming a better employee, boss, homeschool teacher or partner.
There is another way to maintain our equilibrium which doesn’t involve constantly evaluating how productive, worthy or good we are though: practising mindful self-compassion.
What is Self-Compassion?
Put in its simplest possible form, self-compassion is treating yourself as you would a good friend who called you in a time of crisis. Your friend may have totally blown it by doing something foolish, or have gotten themselves into hot water by taking on a role which they are ill-equipped to deal with, but it’s highly unlikely you would berate them for this or ruminate on their shortcomings.
For example, imagine your best friend rings you. She’s struggling to coexist with her partner and her relentless Zoom schedule in her cramped apartment. The conversation goes like this:
“Hey, how are you?” you say, picking up the phone.
“I’m really not doing well at all,” she says, clearly in tears, “It’s driving me insane being cooped up in this apartment with Luke all day and I’m falling behind with work. There’s just no way to focus when he is in meetings and we are snapping at each other all day long. We got into a huge row this morning about tea bags in the sink and I got an email from my boss saying she’s worried about my performance at the moment. I’m just not coping. I don’t know what to do.”
You roll your eyes at the self-indulgence and say “Well to be perfectly honest, I think you’re being a total drama queen. You are getting more sleep than you normally do now you don’t have that long commute you were always moaning about and your apartment is a perfectly good size. You have a computer and a printer and I’m sure if you just got a planner and could be bothered to use it, you’d be much better off. Everybody else in your office seems to manage. I’m not surprised Luke is getting irritated with you with this self-pitying attitude and your bloody tea bags everywhere. Your boss is right, your work is slipping and there’s no excuse. I don’t even know why you’re wasting your time talking to me when you have so much to do. Just get a grip. It’s pathetic”
There is no way you would ever talk to someone you cared about in such a vicious way, but strangely, many of us automatically subject ourselves to similar tirades multiple times a day. Even more strangely, we somehow think shoving this thorny branch in our spokes could help us gain meaningful momentum.
The aim of self-compassion is to learn to offer ourselves the same care we would give a good friend when we are struggling. Instead of tearing ourselves down, we remind ourselves we are doing our best in difficult circumstances and that, just like every other human, we struggle and make mistakes.
Mindfully observing the painful feelings which bubble up can help us to acknowledge our suffering without amplifying or dramatising it, and this step back can allow us to take a wiser, kinder and more helpful position.
How Mindfulness and Self Compassion Relate
Without acknowledging or noticing our suffering, it is impossible to process it and establish a kinder, more constructive inner monologue. Mindfulness (being fully present in the moment without judgement) allows us to accept difficult or uncomfortable experiences, whereas self-compassion invites us to treat ourselves with kindness and think about what we really need.
Mindfulness asks us “what am I experiencing right now?” and self-compassion asks us “what do I need at this moment?”
As much as our knee-jerk reaction to the latter might be “a kick up the arse,” if we really understand what is causing us to feel stressed or upset, we are more likely to respond with something more reasonable like a rousing pep talk or a reminder that we are human and doing the best we can.
Both mindfulness and self-compassion allow us to live with less resistance to ourselves or the trials that life can throw at us. When we are not fighting with ourselves and our perceived imperfections, we have more energy to grow, thrive and, most importantly, feel better.
Isn’t This Just Self-Pity in Disguise?
In the West, especially in the self-deprecating, stiff upper lip realm of the UK, practices like mindful self-compassion are often viewed with suspicion and confused with more negative phenomena.
One of the biggest accusations is that self-compassion is actually just self-pity in a more new age frock, but self-compassion can actually guard against a victim mentality.
While self-pity says “poor me,” mindful self-compassion encourages a recognition that life is hard for everyone sometimes, and that it’s natural for us to experience moments which make us feel lost and overwhelmed.
Why Does Mindful Self-Compassion Work?
The neuroscience of why mindful self-compassion works is all-encompassing enough to build an entire research career, but it can be broken down with a simplified look at the most complicated thing in the known universe; our brains.
Our oldest and most primitive brain system is the area which deals with stress and our fight, flight, freeze response. This reptilian area sees a threat and reacts to it with such lightning speed that we do not have time to rationalise it. While this might save our lives by making us jump out of the path of a speeding vehicle without even consciously realising we are doing it, it can also drag us into instinctive stress spirals. In response, we can either fight ourselves (self-criticism), flee (isolation, repressing or ignoring problems) or freeze (procrastination, feeling stuck and unable to get going).
Becoming more aware of these knee-jerk responses without judgement or criticism through mindfulness can help us bring our “emotional” brain online. Sometimes known as the mammalian brain, this area allows us to care for others and ourselves. By practising mindful self-compassion, we can downregulate the stress response and lessen the all-consuming impact of fight, flight, freeze responses.
In the words of mindful self-compassion experts, Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer:
“When we practice self-compassion, we are deactivating the threat-defense system and activating the care system. Oxytocin and endorphins are released, which helps reduce stress and increase feelings of safety and security.”
Although it might feel unnatural at first (mindful self-compassion is a practice after all!), when we treat ourselves with compassion and support during fraught and trying times, things slowly begin to shift. Embracing ourselves and our lives, warts and all, can provide us with the resilience needed to weather the storm and shine after the rain.