Dennis Tirch
Source: Dennis Tirch

This Friday, July 29th, I’m going to be in Chicago, giving a plenary talk at the conference of an amazing organization, The International OCD Foundation. The Foundation makes important contributions to advancing our scientific understanding and de-stigmatization of OCD. I will be talking about an important new direction for the treatment of OCD and anxiety more broadly, Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) for anxiety. Initial results demonstrate that training the mind in compassion might add power and effectiveness to treatment of anxiety. This blog post is meant to draw our attention to why compassion should help us in this way.

The enduring historical definition of compassion is a sensitivity to the presence of suffering we encounter in ourselves and in others, coupled with a motivation and a commitment to do something about it. For thousands of years, global wisdom traditions have advocated for specific mental training in compassion cultivation as a way to address psychological problems. Our current science is validating these conceptual directions. More than just an emotion or idea, we view compassion as an essential embodied aspect of human intelligence that flows from our motivation for connection, cooperation and care. 

In CFT, our central premise involves how human evolution has led to affiliative emotions and human attachment relationships providing a secure base for our development of courage, curiosity and flexible responding. In this way, we see our ability to face anxiety with courage and willingness as emerging from human attachment dynamics. It is clear that compassion organizes the mind in ways that grant us courage. The gold standard of psychotherapy for OCD calls for a person to deliberately face their greatest fears. Why not provide them with full access to their best evolved tools for overcoming anxious avoidance and moving towards their suffering with a commitment to take action?

We know from the research that cultivating compassion transforms our minds and our behaviors, leading to lower levels of anxiety, greater social engagement and psychological flexibility. There are a host of positive psychological outcomes that have been found to increase with increasing compassion. Often as clients and students learn to activate their compassionate minds, they become better able to tolerate and make space for challenging emotions. Courage, curiosity and joy can show up as we gradually let go of our struggle against our experience. When we can regard ourselves and others with kindness in our hearts, in contact with an inner reserve of confidence and willingness to take action, our lives can flourish. When our minds are organized by compassion, we are less dominated by threat based emotions and behaviors. Often, this means that we can set new compass points for our life’s direction, with greater freedom to pivot towards deeply valued aims, pursuing lives of meaning, purpose and vitality.

Let’s think about how the attributes of the compassionate mind might contribute to overcoming anxiety. These are the 6 attributes of compassion, as described by the psychological literature on the subject:

  • Motivation to care for human well-being
  • Present moment focused sensitivity to the presence of suffering
  • Emotional sympathy for the experience of self and others
  • Flexible perspective taking and empathy
  • Getting unstuck from judgmental and condemning thoughts
  • The ability to tolerate distress and willingly hold difficult emotions and experiences

When we think about what is necessary to engage in exposure to what most scares us, we can see that the cultivating the compassionate mind can greatly aid us in our journey. As the Dalai Lama has said, it is not enough to just feel compassionate, we must act. Compassion is as much about committed action to alleviate and prevent suffering as it is about sensitivity. Compassion is not a soft option, it is about moving towards suffering and doing something about it. Compassion involves courage, and we know that compassion is highly correlated with the psychological flexibility we need to overcome the dominance of threat based emotions.

How does compassion enhance our ability to engage with anxiety? There are so many ways to answer this question, because there are so many levels at which we can examine the powerful, healing effects of compassion on our self-condemnation and excessive self-blame.

On a biological level, activating our embodied compassionate motivation allows us to relatively engage our parasympathetic nervous system, engage the oxytocin system, and stimulate and leverage the actions of the polyvagal complex in ways that allow us to experience greater stability, creativity and courage. On a behavioral level, a compassionate mode of being leads to greater psychological flexibility and adaptive psychological functioning, with diminishing dominance of anxiety and narrow, rigid, threat based repertoires. On an interpersonal level, operating from a place of compassion for self and others can form the foundation for stronger attachment bonds and a more prosocial and cooperative orientation. In terms of the growing research on psychotherapy processes and outcomes, we know that compassion can contribute to positive behavioral change that can help us to become free from living under the tyranny of shame.

I am so glad to be sharing this research and this call to arms for enhanced treatments for anxiety with such a wonderful organization. For more information about The International OCD Foundation, or to register for the conference, please visit: https://iocdf.org

Sending Compassionate Wishes,

Dennis Tirch
Source: Dennis Tirch

Dennis Tirch

About the Authors

Paul Gilbert Ph.D.
Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., is currently a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Derby in the United Kingdom, and director of the Mental Health Research Unit at Derbyshire Mental Health Trust.
Ken Goss Psy.D.

Ken Goss, DClinPsy, is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Head of Coventry Eating Disorders Service in the UK.

Lynne Henderson Ph.D.

Lynne Henderson, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, founder of the Social Fitness Center, and founder and codirector, with Phillip Zimbardo, of the Shyness Institute in Berkeley, CA.

Dennis Tirch, Ph.D

Dennis Tirch, Ph.D., is a compassion-focused psychologist, the author of The Compassionate Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, and a faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical College.

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