Dr. David Burns, author of When Panic Attacks, and Dr. Ronald Siegel, author of The Mindfulness Solution, discuss self compassion as a balm for anxious thoughts. Dr. Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama also discuss this concept in the book The Art of Happiness. All four provide slightly different viewpoints with some important areas of overlap, namely, that we all talk down to ourselves far too much, and with little justifiable reason.
And this is something we can change.
There are many different methods for changing thought patterns which is why I have a whole series of posts on it (a few of which are linked at the bottom of this article). But for today, let's look at mindfulness and self compassion. Of these techniques the latter is usually slightly more confrontational than the former.
Latter (Compassion): “Would you say that shit to your best friend? No? Then don't say it to yourself.”
Former (Mindfulness): “I will simply notice the words and allow them to roll off as water on a duck’s back.”
At first glance, they hardly seem related. But, trust me, they are.
Anxiety, Self Compassion and Mindfulness
Those with anxiety issues tend to score lower on mindfulness and self compassion scales1. Not a huge surprise, as negative thoughts are often a large part of anxiety and depressive disorders. However, in this research, mindfulness was an even greater predictor of functional disability from anxiety than the anxiety symptoms themselves1.
So, a racing heart wasn’t necessarily the biggest issue, nor was self compassion; it was the how well those with anxiety were able to utilize mindfulness to cope. Those with a better grasp of this non-judgmental observation (mindfulness) process were better able to function on a day-to-day basis than those who scored lower on mindfulness scales. This makes mindfulness an important supplement to self compassion and other cognitive behavioral techniques. Mindfulness makes everything different, from anxiety to ordering lunch.
“A monk walks up to a hot dog vendor and says, ‘Make me one with everything.’”
How Mindfulness Works
While cognitive behavioral self compassion techniques seek to actively change thoughts in order to reduce their frequency, mindfulness seeks to foster acceptance of the thoughts without judgment in order to reduce the anxiety around them, which often ends up reducing the thoughts anyway. Plus, by noting the thoughts and not blaming ourselves for them, we tend to foster compassion by default.
Compassion is nice. So is non-judgmental stuff. (I’m looking at you, Rush Limbaugh.)
And mindfulness may allow individuals who practice these techniques to gain more control of cortical alpha rhythms, which gives them better control over emotional regulation and pain2.
Cortical….what the who?
Cortical alpha rhythms act a little like spotlights, adjusting our focus on certain things, while the rest goes into the shadows. Mindfulness gives us more control over that spotlight. Other studies have shown that aside from reducing anxiety, mindfulness practice may also decrease the amount of gray matter in the amygdala3, a big part of the brain’s threat detection system. And while that grey matter around the amygdala is decreasing, white brain matter may be increasing in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area involved in self regulation4. So less threat detection, more emotional control. Right on. That study also found improvements in signaling capabilities within the brain, a critical element to ward off anxiety and depression, particularly in those with a depressive history that may have triggered brain alterations or signal damage (more here).
Great news: mindfulness practice physically changes your brain from the inside out.
“The monk pays for his hot dog and asks the vendor for his change. The vendor replies, ‘change comes from within.’”
Philosophical hot dog vendors are awesome, especially when they are right. So how do you do this mindfulness thing?
How To Use Mindfulness
Unlike other types of meditative practices, mindfulness does not usually involve chants or mantras. Generally, mindfulness practice involves observation in some form, a short focus on touching a coffee cup before you guzzle down your morning brew, or paying attention to the feeling of a door handle for an extra moment before walking out the door. Or you might take deep breaths and observe your body as you sit in the elementary school car line. Maybe you can inhale the aroma of your morning coffee and savor each sip (if you can spare the extra ten minutes without passing out from sheer exhaustion). These types of focused-attention activities can be done for as long or as short a period as you wish and work with essentially any experience, from eating dinner and feeling the pasta in your mouth, to paying bills and feeling the paper of your checkbook, to paying attention to how your heart shimmies when your mother-in-law gets to your house. The key is to practice observation without judgment.
But it is mindfulness that involves internal focus which seems to be most powerful in the long term. Usually these practices involve laying or sitting somewhere without distraction and focusing on the feelings inside your body, the thoughts in your head. Instead of addressing them, watch those thoughts and sensations as if you were watching a rowboat in a stormy sea, from somewhere safe and calm. (This technique is also discussed by Daniel Siegel in Mindsight.) If you picture the negative thoughts or feelings as if they are simply objects, without judgment or attributing them to yourself, this can make the blame that comes along with negative thinking diminish, and foster compassionate self talk as well.
Once you practice the technique and are able to get there quickly, this can also keep you calm down if you go to that place during an attack by the in laws. For the record, not everyone appreciates calm rational thoughts from others when they are highly upset. But as long as you get to be chill, you might be okay with not being popular. (I am, anyway.)
As fantastic as mindfulness is for some, others need something a little more concrete. Less "frilly" more cognitive behavior-y. Self compassion is a stepping stone to mindfulness practice for many, but even if you never get near deeply-focused mindfulness, self compassion should be a part of your daily life.
Self Compassion Exercises
Instead of acceptance training, self compassion is more of an active cognitive behavioral process. The easiest way to foster self compassion is to talk to yourself the way you would speak to someone you care about, or at least someone you are not trying to intentionally piss off. If you wouldn't call your best friend a jackass for accidentally forgetting to pick up milk, don't tell yourself you're a moron for doing the same.
Is Your Self Criticism Warranted?
If you find yourself standing on a street corner calling yourself names inside your head like an introverted, self-effacing Gilbert Gottfried, you can also identify whether the things you're yelling at yourself about are warranted.
- Are you really lazy for not going to work? If you think there may be truth to it, go to work and avoid the issue before it occurs, without making negative judgments about the action itself.
- Are you a fucking jerk for punching the mail lady in the face? Yeah, probably. Stop taking hallucinogens before going out to get the bills, and maybe consider moving.
- Are you an idiot for forgetting the milk? Probably not. If the self punishment doesn't fit the crime, try treating yourself like you would someone else...and make yourself a note next time.
Really thinking about whether self-critical thoughts are rational may help people who have them often. Purposely considering whether you would say these things to a close friend may also be of help. And if you find that you actually talk to your friends like a big jerk too, that's something else you can address, but in a compassionate way.
No one can change what happened yesterday, but we all have the ability to do things differently tomorrow. Allow yourself to make the same mistakes you’d allow from someone you love. After all, self love is ultimately one of the best gifts we can give ourselves. Guard it like you would the last cup of coffee, and savor every drop mindfully.
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- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Using Humor to Combat Stress, Reduce Phobias and Decrease Intrusive Thoughts
- Lies Your Brain Tells You: Why We Have Scary Thoughts
- 8 Anxiety Symptoms You've Probably Experienced (and why they are surprisingly necessary for survival)
- How to Cope With Intrusive Thoughts: Introduction to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and the Cost Benefit Analysis
- How to Stop Intrusive Thoughts: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Thought Replacement and Visual Substitution
- How to Deal With Fears, Phobias and Intrusive Thoughts: Exposure Therapy