WHEN I first began writing this column for WoW! back in March, 2020, we were facing into the first of many national lock-downs.
In our daily lives, we spent months not venturing outside of a small radius from our homes, not seeing loved ones, not being in the same room as family, colleagues, or friends. How far we’ve now come!
Now, with the most recent lifting of restrictions, it feels almost alien to realise that we can once more dance at discos. Imagine! Something we once took for granted, and now can’t believe we have back, albeit with social distancing and masks.
A win for the business owners who have been closed for so long, some light for the younger people who have had so many months of socialising robbed from them. Yet, for many who aren’t jumping straight back in, thanks to the backdrop of still quite high infection rates, breakthrough cases and an uncertain winter ahead, the transition won’t just happen overnight.
The impact of the past 18 months is not to be underestimated, passed off or dismissed. It will go down in history for the upheaval and challenges that were experienced by all, and the best approach to navigating our way out of the fall-out and beyond it is with compassion towards ourselves and others.
As with any change, there will be some discomfort and uncertainty, and our approach matters. A compassionate approach is what we all need.
Whether we speak of compassion or self-compassion, the elements are the same: Mindfulness, Connectedness and Kindness. Offering compassion towards others, or inwards towards yourself can help to ease any ongoing suffering or struggle that hasn’t magically disappeared.
So what do these three elements consist of?
This means to be aware non-judgmentally of what is going on in the present moment.
This can be awareness of the people around you and how they’re feeling and communicating. It can be awareness of your own emotions, thought processes and physical symptoms of stress or anxiety.
Practicing this awareness, of coming out of the thought spirals and bringing your attention to what is unfolding in front of you (without fuelling it with dramatic commentary, or dismissing it as not important) allows both the experience of yourself and others to be validated, the vital first step towards compassion.
Evident benefits of this include reduced stress hormone levels, decreased rumination and worry, and improvement in digestion, sleep and energy levels.
So often, despite theoretically knowing that you’re not the only person going through something, that what you’re experiencing is common, normal, to be expected, we tend to forget it in that moment. We feel utterly alone, isolated, adrift.
Compassion involves reminding yourself or the person suffering that it’s normal to feel this way; to find a situation tough, to not feel 100% all the time.
The sense of common humanity, of not being alone in what you’re feeling, of acknowledging the comradery of going through something that others have gone through before, are going through now, and will go through again, helps to lessen the enormity of the situation.
We can show kindness to ourselves or others in times of challenge through our words and actions. The impact of words is proven time and time again, they trigger emotions and physical responses, and ultimately dictate the course of your actions. The words you use to those who are struggling can be the difference between them rising above the challenge or drowning in it.
The same goes for the voice in your own head, that comments on where it is you find yourself. Too frequently, we tell ourselves to get a grip, pull ourselves together, get on with things. Swapping out these phrases for words like “this is hard”, “I’m doing my best” “I’m struggling and that’s OK.” will reduce the enormity of a situation, and give back some sense of being able to cope.
Combining kind words with simple soothing physical gestures can be very powerful too.
For yourself, it may be to place a hand on your chest or shoulder, as clichéf as that might seem. We’re well aware of how comforting a hug or a squeeze can be from a loved one. These physical demonstrations of kindness help to regulate the nervous system and slow the breathing, reducing our experience of stress or anxiety.
The science of compassion is ever growing, with the neuroplasticity of the brain facilitating very positive changes in our health should we succeed in implementing it regularly.
Dr Kirstin Neff and Dr Chris Germer are two of the leading researchers in the area, with many published books and articles on its benefits and how best to incorporate compassion into our daily lives.
At times like this, when we’re stepping outside of our comfort zones and adapting to change, it can really make all the difference.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Michelle O’Driscoll is a pharmacist, researcher and founder of InTuition, a health and wellness education company.
Her research lies in the area of mental health education, and through InTuition she delivers health promotion workshops to corporate and academic organisations nationally.