Allison Kelly Ph.D., C.Psych

All About Attitude

Building Resilience During a Pandemic

The benefits of self-compassion.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

Miggy Rivera/Pexels
Source: Miggy Rivera/Pexels

This post was written by Aleece Katan, B.Sc. and Allison C. Kelly, Ph.D.

If a brief scroll through the internet is leaving you panic-stricken about COVID-19, you are certainly not alone.  As a society, we have been faced with weeks of unrelenting anxiety, uncertainty, frustration and confusion in regard to the pandemic. Our daily routines are changing before our eyes. Most of us are adapting to working from home or not working at all. We may be experiencing financial stress with no clarity about when it will end. Some of us have children who are struggling to understand the need to practice social distancing. Some of us may be struggling to understand it ourselves.

As the days of COVID-19 go on, you may find yourself feeling more emotional than usual. Perhaps you find yourself becoming short-tempered with your loved ones. You may be feeling guilty for not being as productive as you would like. You may notice that you are spending more time worrying about tomorrow, than paying attention to today.

All of these experiences can be contextualized as a natural human response to the current situation. While understandable, our reactions and behaviours can add significant distress and anxiety to our already stressful circumstances. So, what can we do to better support ourselves during this difficult time? One answer may lie in self-compassion.

Self-compassion is essentially compassion turned inward. It involves tapping into our ability to notice and care for other people’s suffering and then directing this compassion toward our own personal suffering. Kristen Neff suggests that there are three components to self-compassion: viewing our emotional experiences from a balanced and non-judgmental perspective, treating ourselves with care and kindness in times of distress, and seeing our suffering as part of the human condition. A growing body of research shows that self-compassion is a key factor in predicting resilience and emotional well-being in the face of adversity. In fact, research shows that brief practices designed to increase self-compassion can improve our mood, decrease our anxiety, and help us to learn and bounce back from mistakes. We also know that on days when people are more self-compassionate than usual, they cope better with stressful situations. Together, these findings suggest that practicing self-compassion during the current COVID-19 crisis could help reduce some of the suffering we may be experiencing.

To many of us, the idea of practicing self-compassion may feel foreign, weird, or uncomfortable. After all, to have compassion for our suffering, we have to acknowledge our suffering, and that is no easy task. It can feel a lot easier to distract ourselves and disconnect. However, when we do not create space to look at our suffering, we often cause ourselves more suffering without realizing it. We can feel more “on edge,” fragile, and/or numb; it can be harder to know what we really need and how best to move forward. 

With that said, we encourage you to try out the self-compassion strategies below for the next few weeks. It could be that after a while, you conclude they are not for you, and that is okay. However, with practice, you may find them helpful to you.  

  1. Get in touch with your emotions. During this time of uncertainty, it is natural to experience an influx of difficult emotions, such as fear, sadness, and anger. For many of us, getting in touch with these feelings can feel overwhelming, which leads us to want to suppress or avoid them altogether. Rather than disconnecting from our feelings, it can be beneficial to remind ourselves that the emotions we are experiencing are understandable and may serve an important function in the current context. For instance, without fear, we might not be taking steps to self-isolate. Feelings of sadness move us to grieve a life that we once had.
  2. Connect with your common humanity. We often feel alone in our suffering. We may feel as though we are the only ones who are experiencing fear, uncertainty, and sadness. In instances such as this, it is often helpful to take a step back and remind yourself that these emotions are experienced by all humans. Therefore, the next time you find yourself feeling alone in your suffering, try to remind yourself that many others are feeling the same way.
  3. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment in a curious, observer-like way. Practicing mindfulness allows us to experience moments of being in the “now” rather than getting carried away by the stories in our mind about the past and possible futures. Listening to guided meditations can be very beneficial. We can also try to bring mindfulness into daily life, for example, by noticing our breath, paying attention to the flavours of our food, noticing the sensations of the water on our fingers as we wash our hands, and feeling the breeze on our skin as we walk outside.
  4. Write a self-compassionate letter. One strategy to help us cope with negative thoughts and emotions is to write a compassionate letter to ourselves, as we might a friend. First, we bring to mind our current suffering and then refocus our attention on expressing support and care towards ourselves. There are several free resources that can guide us through the steps of self-compassionate letter writing. Research shows that with practice, this task can increase self-compassion and well-being in daily life.
  5. Give yourself a break. It is easy to be hard on ourselves when we are unable to live up to our ‘standards’ or behave as we typically do. However, this is not a typical situation, and expecting ourselves to act as if it were is unfair and unreasonable. Instead, try to reframe self-critical thoughts from a more balanced and understanding perspective. For instance, rather than saying “I should have worked harder,” try “It’s okay I didn’t get much work done. Working from home is difficult to get used to”. See whether reframing these thoughts makes you feel better.

References

Allen, A. B., & Leary, M. R. (2010). Self‐Compassion, stress, and coping. Social and personality psychology compass, 4(2), 107-118.

Barnard, L. K., & Curry, J. F. (2011). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, & interventions. Review of general psychology, 15(4), 289-303.

Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143.

Gilbert, P. (Ed.). (2005). Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy. Routledge.

Kabat-Zinn, J., & Hanh, T. N. (2009). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Delta.

Kelly, A. C., Miller, K. E., & Stephen, E. (2016). The benefits of being self-compassionate on days when interactions with body-focused others are frequent. Body image, 19, 195-203.

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.