Written by Dr. Stacy Bonds

It has been an especially long two years. It has been said, “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”  This definitely rings true as the past few years have been full of life-changing events. Just a few weeks ago, the Russia-Ukraine war started, reverberating throughout the world. There have been many ongoing world and life events as we navigate a global pandemic. Humans have shown their adaptability and resilience in the face of massive, ongoing stressors. Many have adjusted and started to see these conditions as normal, losing sight of the persistent and sustained high levels of stress they are under. 

During these stressful times, we have seen large increases in mental health symptoms. Research has found 1 in 4 youth are experiencing depressive symptoms and 1 in 5 youth are experiencing anxiety symptoms (double the pre-pandemic rates; Racine et al., 2021). Research has also supported that adults are experiencing much higher rates of mental health problems following the pandemic (Nochaiwong et al., 2021).  With stress levels quite high, we are seeing an increase in mental health symptoms across the board globally. Even normal stress is always accompanied by coping (whatever thoughts and behaviors we use to deal with stress). When we are under high levels of stress, there can be fewer coping resources available. For example, if your children keep having COVID exposures at school or daycare, so you are constantly playing catch up and have no time for adaptive coping (e.g., time with friends, take a break, work out). Additionally, there are many major stressors that are outside of individual control. It might also feel like the world is ending, that there is no hope, and that there’s nothing you can do. Under those circumstances, folks often feel depressed, hopeless, and don’t want to do anything (e.g., get out of bed, shower, work). It can seem near impossible to keep managing when your coping tank is empty. 

It is easy to lose sight of this context, that we are still in a pandemic as history unfolds around us. Without considering the larger environment, folks may be experiencing mental health symptoms for the first time or notice a higher level of mental health symptoms, and then blame themselves. I’m being too sensitive. Why am I struggling so much? Everyone else seems to be managing okay. Focusing on ourselves can give us a sense of control over the situation. If I can just figure out how to stop being so sensitive and manage like everyone else, then this situation is okay and sustainable. Heaping this responsibility on you, when much of it may be out of your control, can make you feel worse. Furthermore, this situation is not sustainable. There is not some magic coping mechanism that makes it possible to keep going and feel happy when everything seems to be coming apart at the seams. It makes sense to be feeling overwhelmed and filled with dread when it matches the circumstances. 

Folks can be very hard on themselves and self-critical. It’s so silly that I feel sad and don’t want to do anything. I should be different. Everyone else is able to handle this, I should be able to as well. When we blame ourselves, it increases our own suffering. One way or another, we all end up in difficult, painful situations. Situations where pain is going to be there, no matter what. Blaming ourselves adds another layer of suffering to what is happening. For example, in the latest COVID wave, I had several clients that contracted COVID. They had done everything they could to not get COVID (e.g., being vaccinated) and then got COVID anyway. There is pain inherent in getting COVID including the symptoms of the illness and isolation from loved ones. Often self-criticism followed their diagnosis. I should have made different choices. If I had just not gone to the grocery store that day, then I wouldn’t have gotten COVID. Being critical and blaming self does not change the reality of the situation. It does turn up the suffering. 

Self-compassion is an alternative to self-criticism. Compassion is when we recognize suffering and try to alleviate that suffering. We can direct compassion towards ourselves and cultivate self-compassion as a practice, where we treat ourselves with kindness and care. Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer have created a program called Mindful Self-Compassion (Neff & Germer, 2018). They characterize self-compassion as having three core elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

  • Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment
    • Treating self with care and understanding rather than harsh judgment
    • Actively soothing and comforting oneself
  • Common humanity vs. Isolation
    • Seeing own experience as part of larger human experience not isolating or abnormal
    • Recognizing that life is imperfect
  • Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
    • Allows us to “be” with painful feelings as they are
    • Avoids extremes of suppressing or running away with painful feelings

In my above example, self-compassion might look like:

  • Noticing this is a very difficult, painful circumstance.
  • Reflecting on how other folks are sharing this experience. You are not the only person who did everything they could to stay safe and stop the spread of COVID and then contracted COVID. You are not alone.
  • Try to extend kindness to yourself. Can I be gentle with myself about these circumstances. How can I comfort or take care of myself while I recover? Could I use some things I enjoy for distraction, rather than beating myself up?

We need the tools of self-compassion for our current circumstances. As we continue to weather events that will end up in the history books, we must take care of ourselves and find ways to include ourselves in the circle of compassion. Here are some ways to explore making contact with self-compassion:

  • Consider your context. What is going on in your life? What is going on in your community? What’s going on globally? How might these be impacting you? 
  • Be compassionate in your care for yourself. What are the ways your context could be shifted? For example:
    • Is it time to ask your parents to watch the kids a night a week so you can have alone time? 
    • Is it time to set a limit to how much news or social media you engage with? 
    • Is it time to scale back a little at work? 
    • Is it time to start taking a five minute daily walk?
  • Reflect on how you are treating yourself about what you are up against.
    • Are you being a bully? Beating yourself up, blaming self, taking responsibility for stuff that may be beyond your control?
    • Are you treating yourself like you would a good friend? Showing yourself kindness and gentleness?
    • If you find you are being a bully to yourself, you can try this exercise. If my good friend was to come to me and describe what’s going on, what would I tell them?
      • For example, if I am having a hard time at work. My attention is elsewhere. It’s taking me longer to get projects done, the days seem to be dragging, and I have no motivation. What would I tell my good friend if they were in that situation? Would I tell them you are lazy and good for nothing? You can’t do anything right. Everyone else is doing so much better than you. Or would I tell them you’re in a tough spot right now. It’s really difficult to get yourself moving, and you’re doing what you can. Just because it is rough right now, doesn’t mean it will stay that way forever. 

If you want to learn more about self-compassion, Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer’s Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook is a great self-directed way to learn more about self-compassion. It is broken down into approachable pieces to practice and use in daily life. The Center for Mindful Self Compassion (CMSC) is an organization based in San Diego that works to spread the practice of self-compassion. CMSC offers free audio guided meditations, daily online self-compassion meditations, as well as online and in-person courses in self-compassion. Therapy can be another way to cultivate self-compassion with support. Available from any of the providers at Grounded Therapy. 

 “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” – Dalai Lama

References

Racine, N., McArthur, B. A., Cooke, J. E., Eirich, R., Zhu, J., & Madigan, S. (2021). Global prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents during COVID-19: A meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatrics, 175(11), 1142-1150. 

Nochaiwong, S., Ruengorn, C., Thavorn, K., Hutton, B., Awiphan, R., Phosuya, C., Ruanta, Y., Wongpakaran, N., & Wongpakaran, T. (2021). Global prevalence of mental health issues among the general population during the coronavirus disease-2019 pandemic: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 11, 10173.

Kristin Neff & Christopher Germer (2018). The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. Guilford Press.