Compassion in the Time of Corona

If you have access to the internet, you have probably come across various lists about how to stay both physically and mentally well during this time of global crisis. I will share lists of my own  in this piece, but more than that, I want to share some psychological ideas about compassion, and more specifically, the compassionate mind approach to trauma.

But first, let’s do 2 things:

TRAUMA

First let’s acknowledge, as Dr Bessel van der Kolk did, that we are collectively surviving a crisis that is characterised by a number of preconditions for trauma. These preconditions include lack of predictability, immobility, powerlessness, loss of connection, numbing or spacing out, loss of sense of time, loss of safety and loss of sense of purpose.

And what is trauma?. Deborah Lee describes it as “the emotional shock we feel following an extremely stressful event”. Traumatic events “threaten our survival, well-being, sense of self and our sense of future”. They cause overwhelming  emotions of intense fear, hopelessness and horror.

Could we consider Covid-19 a traumatic event. Potentially. Many of those preconditions apply and many of us may be experiencing very difficult emotions as a result. In highlighting this, my purpose isn’t to catastrophise what we may experience. Instead,  I’d like to hopefully offer a point reference and a way of speaking openly about the things we are or might experience – because the conditions are ripe. If we have the words to speak about a thing, we’ll then be able to have the kinds of conversations that allow compassion and useful change.

B.A.C.E.S

The second thing we need to do is go over the B.A.C.E.S of promoting mental health. By ensuring our well-being, we’ll increase our capacity to face this crisis with greater resilience.

COMPASSION

So what is compassion? Compassion is about being open to our suffering (and that of others) and  committing to that suffering’s alleviation.

Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) says that we have parts of our brains that are primed for survival. Sometimes those parts of our brains conflict with the other parts that are designed to reason, plan and imagine. For example, some parts of our brain can stimulate incredible fear, even while other parts tell us our fears are irrational. Being human, with human emotions, can be overwhelming, confusing and even frustrating. But a common idea in CFT is that, “it’s ok” and “it’s not all our fault”. However, it is something that we can better manage. We can begin by understanding how our different emotional regulation systems work.

The theory goes that we have a drive-focused system,  threat-focused system and a soothing system. According to Lee, each “orchestrates a mentality by triggering specific types of emotions that focus our attention and cause us to act in a corresponding a manner”. Put another way, “driving” emotions like excitement can make us focused on reward or resources. Threat-based emotions of anxiety or anger can make us focused on danger and survival, while emotions of contentment and connectedness can make us focused on affiliation and kindness.

It is so easy to get trapped in the threat-focused mindset where we are in survival mode. Right now it’s completely understandable. However, you may already know that our “survival mode solutions” can often make our problems worse. Being trapped in the threat-focused system can make the soothing system’s ability to balance and regulate our emotions very difficult.

However! Self-compassion is a way to activate the sometimes elusive powers of the soothing system. Deborah Lee describes it as an antidote to a threat-focused mindset. “The kinder we are (to ourselves and to others), the easier it is to tone down threats and to bring us back to a sense of well-being”.

A LIST

is a list of ways to engage your compassionate mind and activate your soothing system.

  1. Look for opportunities to relieve suffering, and to support well-being (yours and others)
  2. Focus on helpful and supportive memories with a positive focus
  3. Be mindful, be present and be patient with yourself.
  4. Think of kind and encouraging images, rather than frightening and self-critical ones. Imagine a “safe place” or a “compassionate image
  5. Do what works and fits with your values. Deal with what frightens you or seems difficult. Take one step at a time. Nurture yourself in practical ways and do what calms you down
  6. Accept negative emotions as messengers and “ride the wave” of those emotions. They will ebb. Instead focus on doing things that make you feel warm, connected and supported.
  7. Remember to just breathe

One of my favourite ways of engaging my compassionate mind is to imagine Jesus as my “compassionate image/perfect nurturer”. This is  a figure that is committed to me, wants to help me and takes joy in my happiness. They are not overwhelmed by distress but can abide with me. They are wise and understand me intimately. Jesus does all of these. Vividly imagining a perfect nurturer like Jesus creates a sense of safety and activates my soothing system. I like to imagine Jesus sitting right next to me and knowing exactly what I would need to hear. In this particular moment, I imagine him saying:

I have loved you […]with an everlasting love. With unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself. I will rebuild you […]. You will again be happy and dance merrily with tambourines. (Jer. 31: 3-4 NLT)

Try it for yourself and be encouraged.

D. N. Buhle