Combating Coronavirus Stress With Compassion

How compassion can help us decrease stress and increase understanding.

Posted May 20, 2020

 Jacub Gomez/Pexels
Source: Jacub Gomez/Pexels

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

–His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV

Tensions are rising as people around the country struggle with life under COVID-19 restrictions. Where a few weeks ago, Americans appeared united against a common enemy, we are once again divided along political and cultural lines. This is more than just unpleasant; it makes fighting the Coronavirus even more difficult. Coordination and cooperation—locally, nationally, and globally—is the quickest and best way to fight a global pandemic, although it can be easy to lose sight of our common goals when we are mired in stress and uncertainty about our own physical and financial health.

In order to manage the uncertainty and challenges of life with COVID-19 without doing harm to ourselves and others, we have to get our stress under control. We can't act wisely or thoughtfully if we are reacting from a place of fear or anger. Practicing compassion offers us an active way to defuse our own stress so that we can make rational, healthy choices. It also helps us to understand what underlies the behavior of those with whom we disagree, offering a path toward reconciliation or, at least, peaceful cooperation. 

The Stress Response 

When we face a threat of harm or other stressful circumstance, our bodies trigger an alarm system that is designed to shunt cognitive and physical resources toward the more primitive bodily systems needed for survival. Blood and oxygen rush to our limbs so we can run quickly, pupils dilate to improve vision, and all non-essential functions get put on the backburner. These life-saving physiological responses occur thanks to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response.

Our alarm system is great for helping us respond to danger, but it can wreak havoc on our health and psychological functioning when chronically activated or when insufficiently defused following a major threat. In fact, structural changes to the brain occur following repeated, intense, or ongoing sympathetic activation. This makes sense: the brain adapts to protect us, based on the expectation that we can’t relax because the world isn't safe. Such structural changes to the brain have been called chronic stress or traumatic stress.

Over time, in addition to creating uncomfortable symptoms like irritability, fatigue, headaches, and changes in appetite, a chronically stressed brain shows a pattern of being easily “hijacked” by stress. That is, the alarm system goes off even when no real threat exists. When this hijacking occurs, communication ceases between the primitive survival-focused parts of the brain (the limbic system) and the higher-order, problem-solving systems of the brain (the prefrontal cortex.) When in hijack mode, we are exquisitely adept at survival, but less skilled at making rational judgments, like the context or consequences of a situation or action. 

This phenomenon, I believe, helps explain the recent increase in violent and angry behaviors we are seeing around the country. It's not that these people are intentionally choosing to behave in ways that are contrary to our common goal of defeating coronavirus. Rather, their limbic systems are in panic mode and aren't communicating with the rational, evolved, empathetic prefrontal cortex. While this is no excuse—we are each responsible for appropriately managing our stress or treating our mental health concerns so that we can behave in a responsible, safe manner—it is an explanation. And with understanding we can find solutions. 

Combating Stress with Compassion

There are many methods shown to help us to defuse an activated sympathetic nervous system. These include things like exercise, adequate sleep, social support, deep breathing, and grounding/mindfulness practices. Hopefully you are already practicing at least some of these! Buddhist wisdom also teaches that compassion—for self and others—communicates safety and calm to our bodies, allowing us to relax, and in turn promotes a sense of unity and peace in our communities. 

In The Essence of the Heart Sutra, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote:

"According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It's not passiveit's not empathy alonebut rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and loving kindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is lovingkindness)."

The wisdom element of compassion allows us to see clearly why we and others act as we do. It allows us to understand that a person who responded violently to being told to wear a mask was stressed and feeling threatened. He was in fight/flight mode, likely due to the chronic stress of life with COVID-19. Again, this doesn’t mean the behavior was acceptable (far from it). But if we have the wisdom to know that bad behavior is merely a symptom of suffering, then we can have the compassion in our hearts to free that person—and all of us collectively—from our fear and pain. If we are free from suffering, there is no need for violent behavior, and we can work together for the health and economic security we all desire.

While this makes sense in theory, it can be hard to put into practice. I admit that sometimes it seems nearly impossible to feel compassion for those who behave in hateful, violent, or selfish ways. So I start by focusing on myself. In fact, compassion for others begins with compassion for ourselves. 

Why is self-compassion the essential place to start? If we can nurture and calm our own brains and bodies with compassion, we can respond, rather than react, when facing difficulty. If we are under control, we can defuse, rather than escalate, conflicts that occur with others who may feel out of control. In sum, practicing compassion for ourselves sets the tone for our engagement with the world, and that compassionate energy spreads outward, gently nudging those around us toward the same. 

Compassion for Self in 3 Steps

You are now over two months into this stressful experience. Even if you haven’t consciously noticed changes in your body, the threat and lifestyle changes caused by COVID-19 have activated your alarm system. This is affecting how you think, act, and feel. 

For example, have you been more irritable, emotional, or angry lately? More worried? Drinking or eating more than normal? Can't stop reading the latest news? These reactions and behaviors are symptoms of an activated alarm system, as well as attempts by your body and mind to discharge this increased activation of your autonomic nervous system. 

Begin to show yourself compassion during this stressful time using the following three steps:

  1. Close your eyes for three minutes and notice what you are experiencing cognitively, emotionally, and somatically. Acknowledge the signs of stress in your body, mind, and emotions. These could be racing thoughts, trouble sleeping, tight muscles, tearfulness, anger, etc. Honor these very real and very reasonable fears. Whatever you feel is OK; it all makes sense.
  2. Thank your body for trying to keep you safe with these adaptations. Show it gratitude for doing what it was designed to do. For each symptom or behavior you noticed, give thanks for the wisdom of your body and brain.
  3. Communicate to your body, mind, and heart that they are safe. Tell yourself that you can turn off the alarm system for a while, that things will work out alright. Rub your neck, stretch your muscles, take a nap, listen to calming music, hug someone, turn off the news, etc. In words and behavior, signal to your body that it's safe to relax. Be patient, as you would with a scared child. This will take repetition and experimentation to find what works best for you.

I recommend doing this every day for one week, at least. This meditation (20 minutes) and dharma talk (30 minutes) by Jack Kornfield offers this practice in a guided format, if that's helpful. Jack's words perfectly capture the power of compassion to steady ourselves during stressful times.

If you can sincerely practice compassion for yourself, you will naturally begin to practice compassion for others. With time, compassion practice teaches that we are all wired the same way: for survival. That we all have the same basic needs. That all behavior has a cause that makes sense. That we all want to be free from suffering. That we must tackle this pandemic—and the inevitable difficulties that life throws our way once this is past—together.

No one says it more eloquently than his holiness, the Dalai Lama:

"This crisis and its consequences serve as a warning, that only by coming together in a coordinated, global response, will we meet the unprecedented magnitude of the challenges we’ll face … It is during times like this when we must focus on what unites us as members of one human family … Accordingly, we need to reach out to each other with compassion."