Photo by Alvaro Serrano via Unsplash

Here is the second of Chris’ two guest posts on Compassion Focused Therapy. This one gives helpful guidance on how to do some of the key practices.

In the first part of this post on compassionate mind training and Compassion Focused Therapy the core concepts were considered.  In this second post some of the practices I have found helpful are covered.    

Compassionate exercises

The practice of Soothing rhythm breathing

This is considering breathing with a purpose – a compassionate motivation-  to both soothe and act as a grounding tool, either at times of distress or in preparation for other exercises. 

As part of our overall nervous system, we have a component called the autonomic nervous system (ANS) looking after many of our automatic bodily functions – heart rate, respiration, digestion – so it regulates our internal environment.  It has two main branches – sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  SNS is linked to our threat system, it prepares the flight-fight response.  For example, increased heart rate, reduced digestion.  It is indicative of psychological arousal. 

PNS is linked more to soothing and replenishment, so resting and digesting.   It is indicative of psychological relaxation. 

Our organs receive input from both, so activity (heart rate) is controlled by the relative levels of PNS and SNS activity.

What the science suggests is that certain behaviours or actions can help engage the PNS.  These include body posture, facial expression and breathing, in terms of depth and pace.  Given that in our modern lives our threat system can be highly active and so SNS is running on a high state of reactivity, it’s important to consider how we can engage PNS. 

Perhaps you can see how this ties in with the idea of using the soothing system to help with threat and drive balance, and one way to facilitate that is through a practice called soothing rhythm breathing. 

The practice involves a few elements – 

  • sitting in a relaxed and comfortable manner, focused on breathing but not in an alert state
  • having a relaxed facial expression, with a gentle smile
  • focus on breathing – deep breathing, really using all the lung capacity and using a count of 5 on the in and out breath. Recent research has also suggested a pattern of count of 4 on the in and 6 on the out.  

The motivation to perform a practice is two fold – one it can help on a daily basis that you take some time out to pause, to nurture your body with moments of rest and secondly its developing a practice that can be called upon at distressing times. 

Aside from perhaps creating a routine time to perform the exercise each day, it can also be helpful to pause at times during the day, to take a minute or two and engage in some deeper, regular breathing as part of a commitment to looking after your emotional wellbeing. 

And at times of distress or ahead of doing something challenging this practice can be very helpful to help engage the soothing system and support bringing to the fore the compassionate self.

Here are two example guided practices – one from Prof Paul Gilbert and one from Dr James Kirby 

The practice of Compassionate imagery 

One brilliant skill is that our brain can visualise many things and by doing so can cause us psychological and physiological reactions.  This ability to visualise as lead to so many of the great innovations and developments of humans,  It allows us to plan, remember and imagine.  It can also allow us to ruminate and wonder “what if” which may lead to creating catastrophic events in our minds that never happen.

Compassionate imagery employs this great skill we have with a motivation to provide support and one very helpful practice is the compassionate place. 

The compassionate place is an exercise to bring to mind a place which nourishes and replenishes you.  This can be a place you know well, somewhere you have visited or perhaps seen on television or social media – or it could be a made up place.  Mine is a made up place, although with elements of places I know, of a wooded area.   As part of imagining it I use all my senses – to visualise what it looks like, to sense the movement of air, to feel the tree bark, to hear the nearby brook, to smell the wood.

The important thing is that this doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s not something to get right.  It’s something to help you and the place will be personal and meaningful to you, so don’t be influenced by what you might think you “should” be imagining. 

The practice of Compassionate letter writing

As well as the formal compassionate letter writing exercise ,  I use the techniques and approach when writing in a daily journal as well.  Personally writing about emotions, depression and everyday challenges can really help to bring some clarity and engage the compassionate self,, fostering the compassionate wisdom and encouragement I may need . 

The key intention behind the writing exercise is to acknowledge our suffering or distress and to help with managing that.  That links into the definition of compassion from episode one. 

To start it can help to foster the intention and motivation towards the writing by sitting and doing the soothing rhythm breathing exercise. It can also help to pause if something causes you a lot of distress while writing, to revisit that breathing exercise and also the soothing place exercise.

With the motivation and intention in mind, consider what the letter will be about.  Its a letter to yourself , no-one else will read it, so have the motivation to be open and honest within it, as challenging as that may be. You write it as a letter, so addressed to yourself.  In the first part acknowledge what the issue is, in a way that you might talk to a friend who is struggling.  Supportive and understanding.

Then consider what you are feeling and validate it.  Acknowledge that this is a difficult time or challenge you are facing. Validate all the feelings you have around this.  This may include considering how your threat an or drive systems have played a role.  It can be helpful to acknowledge that some of your reactions are part of that evolved way of thinking, so often the reactions are natural. 

Really consider what you are responsible for and what you are not responsible for. 

Now start to consider what thoughts and actions you could take , being guided from a place of compassion, towards yourself and to any others involved. As part of that reflect on any challenges or barriers that may come up, what could you do if they happen and is there any support you need.

Finally close off with a compassionate commitment to the changes you envisage, to help sustain the actions.  So this is an encouraging, coaching commitment towards yourself – no judging or criticising.

The last part is to read, which you can do immediately or leave for a while.  Bring your compassionate self to the reading – don’t judge how well you have written, any misspellings or errors.  They don’t matter – recognise that you have written with honesty and openness to help address something which is causing you distress. 

A free guide to this practice is available from the Compassionate Mind Foundation. 

In conclusion

I hope that these posts have provided an overview of the core concepts and some of the exercises from compassionate mind training.  Deepening compassion, especially around self-compassion, made a real difference to me…perhaps these posts will inspire you explore compassionate mind training for yourself.  Further details about CFT can be found via the Compassionate Mind Foundation

Chris Winson is an author, blog writer and founder of #365daysofcompassion, which is an online community of people sharing thoughts, reflections and information about compassion and well-being. 

During his life Chris has managed depression, often hiding it until a major period in 2016 lead him to seek help.  That introduced Chris to Compassionate Focused Therapy, which has lead to his focus on how compassion and Compassionate Mind Training can play a supportive role to health and wellbeing. 

Chris recently recorded a series of video talks on CFT which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCX-zBQP7u2fRY-riGNGuaDw

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