senior hand on face

The level of loss, fear, and even anger that we are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic can leave us with tremendous distress. Significant changes playing out in our personal lives, our communities, and the world in general seem to be arising so rapidly that it is hard to absorb the reality. Mary Shelley wrote in Frankenstein, “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

In his book, Compassion Fatigue (2013), Charles Figley, PhD highlighted how people in helping professions can find themselves in a state of tension and preoccupation regarding the trauma they are observing in their clients/patients. It can leave them re-experiencing the trauma, seeking ways to numb or avoid their feelings, and struggling with a chronic sense of arousal, all of which leads to burnout. Although Figley’s research was focused on people who were in helping professions, the constant stream of news, social media, and contagious anxiety from those around us, can make us all vulnerable to the same impact.

Based on Figley’s findings, we may be tempted to close our heart to all of the pain we are witnessing around us. Luckily, Kristin Neff, PhD, (self-compassion.org) argues that what leads to burn out is actually “Empathy Fatigue” rather than “Compassion Fatigue.” Empathy refers to the ability to feel others’ feelings. It is thanks to mirror neurons that our brains can read others’ emotions and create empathetic resonance. Feeling empathy is the first step in building social connections. At the same time, it is important that we remember that the emotion is the other person’s and not ours. When the “self-other” distinction gets blurred, we take on the emotional pain of the other person as our own pain, and our empathetic distress increases.

In contrast to empathy, compassion is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern, and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion generates positive emotions, and therefore is able to counteract the negative effects of empathy that arises by experiencing others’ suffering. Compassion is an emotion that is shared between equals. It reminds us of our common humanity in the pain of life, and that such pain can befall any of us at any time. This is something the COVID-19 virus has made quite clear. As Nelson Mandela reminds us, “Our human compassion binds us to one another – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

Dr. Neff recommends using compassion for ourselves as an oxygen mask in the moment. And, remember that we are advised to put our oxygen mask on first! If we only experience empathy for others’ suffering with no loving compassion for ourselves, we resonate with the pain of others and have nothing to balance ourselves, resulting in Empathy Fatigue. The Dalai Lama stated that, “for someone to develop genuine compassion towards others, first [they] must have a basis upon which to cultivate compassion, and that basis is the ability to connect to one’s own feelings and to care for one’s own welfare.”

When we are experiencing stress, a reasonable recommendation is to increase self-care. At the same time, most self-care, such as sufficient rest, exercise, play, etc., are more easily accessed when we can step away from the distress.  Self-compassion practices are about offering ourselves kindness and care in the moment of suffering. Some may worry that self-compassion is inherently “self-ish.” The plethora of research, much of it led by Dr. Neff, does not support this. Self-compassion entails treating ourselves no better or no worse than we would treat a loved one. This may involve gently putting our hand on our heart to physically comfort ourselves, while saying kind, supportive words to ourselves such as “this is so difficult right now,” “I’m sorry it’s so hard,” or offering ourselves the kind words we might offer a friend.

Compassion for ourselves and for others is a practice we can cultivate through being mindful of our distress, being aware of how much space we are able to maintain between ourselves and whatever we are experiencing that is stressful, and turning towards our experience with an open heart and curiosity. It can help us navigate difficult times and lead to greater contentment and peace of mind.

To learn more about compassion practices, please visit the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (centerformsc.org) and the Change Through Compassion program through Samaritan Counseling Center (scclanc.org/ctc).

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