With all the upset and worry caused by the current Corona virus, it was a bit of a holiday to have something to celebrate. On 9 July 2020 my second book, The Stress Workbook was published. It’s been very heartening to receive so many congratulations from people. It’s particularly special to see people holding your book and getting ready to read it.
All my life I have looked for meaning and ways to work with my habits in order to live more harmoniously. It’s been a natural progression from that to write about things that are relevant to peoples’ lives. My blog aims to pick up on issues that impact wellbeing and offer ways to work to increase your own. So, when it was suggested to me that I should write about stress and show how compassion can help to work with it, I jumped at the chance.
1.We’re going through challenging times
There’s no doubt that the last few months have been extremely stressful. Worry about the virus is one thing but then there is all the fallout to deal with as well. Lockdown and all its ongoing effects have changed our lives in ways we could never have imagined a few months ago. Conversations with friends are opportunities to share how we are trying to manage the strangeness of the situation.
I had a significant birthday in June and had planned to celebrate the passing of another decade with trips to the UK to see family and friends. Obviously, the plan is now on hold. My eldest niece had her first baby during lockdown and as her mother is in the vulnerable category she had to go through the whole thing without her mother’s physical support. One of my nephews has lost his job because of layoffs and the other one had to celebrate getting his PhD in a virtual ceremony. All over the world people are struggling to cope with loss, upheaval, financial hardship, anxiety and uncertainty.
2. Stress is something we all need to cope with
Stress tends to get a bad press. When we talk about feeling stressed, we generally mean we don’t feel well in ourselves. That’s not surprising, as stress can make us tired, irritable, and generally uninspired. However, from an evolutionary point of view, our stress response was designed to keep us away from danger and safe enough to reproduce and raise our offspring. The trouble is that our modern lifestyle is very different from the one our ancestors led. The stress response that was designed to help us run away from danger, or to stand and fight it when we had the chance, nowadays is triggered by traffic jams, lost keys, crowded supermarkets and so on. Our sympathetic nervous system is chronically over-stimulated. We’ve become exhausted by our own reactions!
Although it is only natural to want things to go well in life and for things to turn out as we want, experience has shown us that life a series of ups and downs. We all face frustrations and disappointments. The Stress Workbook aims to show how stress is an inevitable part of life. We can learn to work with it in useful and productive ways that will benefit us.
3. The Stress Workbook points out our unhelpful habits
Of course, as we go through life, we adopt all kinds of coping mechanisms to help us get by. Some of these strategies work well but some of them can stop us being able to understand more about how we are coping.
For example, when we experience stress our tendency is to try and make it go away. We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we turn away from it. Sometimes we distract ourselves with a holiday, or TV, or by buying something new. Maybe we try and comfort ourselves but all too often it’s with an extra glass of wine, or more chocolate.
Another habit we have is that we don’t pay attention. Research has shown that for almost 50% of our waking hours we not thinking about what we are doing at that moment, but our mind is wandering off and thinking about completely different things. Have you ever driven home from somewhere and when you arrive, you have almost no memory of the journey at all? Or been in a meeting where you zoned out for large sections of the discussion and when it was your turn to speak, struggled to find the thread? The thing is that this does make us happy but rather stops us from being fully present for our experience.
Both of these habits are example of habits that get in our way and prevent us from moving forward. We need to replace them with beneficial habits—ones that will build our resilience and enhance our wellbeing.
4. We can develop new, useful habits to improve how we cope
With regard to stress the new habit we need to develop is that of leaning into our stress. This doesn’t mean to indulge in stress but to quietly allow ourselves to explore what is happening for us and how it is affecting us. We can begin to notice where in the body we register stress, and how it makes us react. Over time, we can learn to see what triggers our stress and even how to avoid these triggers. Instead of distracting ourselves we become curious to see how this all works and to find new ways of coping.
The best way to work with our wandering mind is through mindfulness meditation. With mindfulness we can learn to be in the present moment. Instead of going over something that has already happened, or worrying about what we’re planning to do next, we can simply be present. When we are present, we can bring so much more energy to what we are doing. We’re more focused and effective and our attention is sharper. That means we can notice what is going on for ourselves and others, so it’s a good strategy in working with stress.
5.We don’t necessarily see compassion as a means to work with stress
If we’re asked how we cope with stress, it’s likely that compassion is not the first tool that springs to mind. However, developing compassion for ourselves and other people helps to widen our perspective. Our focus on our own problems is lifted, as we take into account what is happening for other people. When we’re going through hard times, it’s all too easy to wonder, ‘why me’? Compassion teaches us to see that everyone, whoever they are, has difficulties and worries. We are not being singled out for special punishment. It’s just how life is.
Going on from this, we can take a fresh look at our reactions to events that cause us trouble. Let’s take an example. Say you had a work meeting that went badly and left you stressed and depleted. The event of the unsatisfactory meeting is one thing, but our tendency is then to pile on our reactions. We feel responsible for the meeting going wrong, while also feeling some anger towards those who did not agree with your point of view. So, we blame ourselves and blame other at the same time. Then we feel even more stressed and miserable. Learning to work with how we respond to difficult situations is an important act of self-compassion.
6. The Stress Workbook is packed full of practical, workable advice
Because this is a workbook, it’s full of reflections, exercises, worksheets and meditation scripts. The Stress Workbook is designed to flow as a continuous story and so the exercises are embedded into the text. This means that you can read the theory and then quickly put it into practice.
I have also included many stories from the workshops that I have given. They’re a great way to see how other people manage stress—where they get stuck and how they resolve it.
In theory you can begin at the beginning of the Stress Workbook, take your pencil and work through everything step-by-step. I suggest pencil because you might want to erase stuff and write something different. It means that you are evolving a set of strategies to work with stress through the power of compassion from the beginning of the workbook.
Do let me know how you get on. I always love to hear!
I have had one major incident of job loss in my career. It was messy and painful. Although it happened years ago, I can still wake up in the night and wonder what on earth happened. I wasn’t fired but made redundant, although the difference felt like semantics. The experience left me feeling disorientated, lonely and inadequate.
For most of us, losing a job means a scramble to find another one as soon as possible. The bills that need paying do not stop with job loss. My own solution was to become a solo entrepreneur, which involved a steep learning curve. There is very little time left to care for how wounded, low and discarded one can feel.
Here are some of the issues that I tried to work with while setting up my new business.
Who was I after my job loss?
My job had been in senior management in an international non-profit. I travelled a lot, I had teams who answered to me—I was a boss. When it was over there was a short period of time where I was completely disorientated. For so many years I had worked very hard and focused my energy on my work. Without it I was not sure who I was.
It took me a while to consciously disconnect myself from the job that I had had. I needed to remember why I wanted the job in the first place, and to re-connect with the motivation that led me to carry it out for so long. Slowly, painfully it became possible to remember interests that I had dropped through lack of time before my job loss. My meditation practice, which had become minimal during the busiest times, flourished again. The space it helped to open up enabled me to process what I was feeling in a way that was healing.
Struggling with a sense of shame
Brené Brown describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of live and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
That seems pretty accurate. I certainly felt that I had failed and become somehow lesser in people’s eyes. Indeed, by not being able to avoid job loss I had failed in my own eyes. However, much worse was the idea that people would think that as a failure I was not someone they would want to know. Not being able to explain to myself what had gone wrong made it very hard to explain to other people. I felt defenceless.
That was the place from which I set out to build the next phase of my working life.
Major cracks in my self-confidence
Perhaps it is inevitable that when you suffer a job loss you are precipitated into an intense period of self-examination. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good idea to take time to reflect on your work habits and how you are coping with your working life.
The trouble comes when, hurting from the shock of losing your job, you forget all about how to be kind to yourself. I have had friends who have been made redundant or lost their job who have turned to me for help. I have never subjected any of them to the tirade of judgment and criticism that I poured out to myself.
Self-compassion was not so well known at the time that I lost my job. As part of my work now I have studied it quite thoroughly and wish that I had known more about it at the time. Learning how to tame the sharp voice of my inner critic and to change oneself through kindness would have helped me enormously. Understanding that my job loss was not something that only happened to me but was happening to many other people at the same time would have taught me a great deal.
Fear of what my job loss meant for the future
Underneath everything else there was the constant worry of not being able to get more work. The threat of financial difficulties was a constant drain on my energy. Working with that fear became a priority because when it got too intense, I froze.
Fortunately, we often have more resilience than we think. As much as I could, I used the fear to cut through my feelings of inadequacy and to spur me on.
The loss of community
One thing that I had not anticipated was how much I missed the people that I had worked with. People that I had worked with for years and seen every day simply dropped out of my life. Gone was the flow of ideas and the shared camaraderie.
When you work with other people there is a ready-made social network. Of course, you are joined together by the work you are doing but you also share all kinds of other things. You hear news of what is going on in other people’s lives. There is an audience for you to share what is going on in your’s. You accompany each other through all kinds of moods, challenges and accomplishments.
With a job loss, all this is gone in a moment.
Struggling with the sympathy of friends and family
My friends and family were kind and sympathetic, but I found it hard to be the one needing support. I am more used to offering it. Too often I found myself putting on a brave face when actually I felt really low. In fact, it was a journey for me to allow my vulnerability to show and to accept their support with gratitude.
However much we may need to move on after a job loss and find new work, we need time to grieve. Yes, it’s uncomfortable and it takes time but without it we are denying ourselves the opportunity to learn from what has happened to us. In order to move on in a good way, we need to be able to make some sense of what has happened. How we heal the pain of our loss will depend on being able to take the time for reflection, and evaluation. Job loss is one of the most stressful experiences we will face but it is also a time of opportunity. We need to give ourselves the gift of that time.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I am currently designing an online course to support people through job loss. If you could fill out my survey it would help me to gather data for the online course. It will only take you 10 minutes. Thank you so much!
Most of us are back at work by this point in January and already the holidays are starting to feel like they’ve been over for a while. In our street, every day the pile of Christmas trees assigned to the garbage grows bigger. It’s hard to imagine that a few days ago they were taking pride of place loaded down with all kinds of treats and surrounded by presents.
Perhaps while you were enjoying your holiday downtime, you were thinking about the new year about to start. Maybe you’ve made a whole list of new year resolutions. It seemed a good idea at the time—make a fresh start to the year and get yourself in shape. The thing is, we can get a bit carried away. We make a huge list of all the things we are going to stop doing and all the things we think we should start doing and when we come to look at it—well, it’s a bit overwhelming and frankly, depressing!
When we are not self-compassionate
Now we have set up the perfect conditions for feeling guilty and dissatisfied with ourselves. The next step is to start beating ourselves up for not getting going on the self-improvement plans we made—which will make us feel worse. It’s easy to look back over the year just finishing and remember all the things we didn’t do, or hopes we had that were not fulfilled.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to get the best out of ourselves, nor with using the beginning of a new year as a time for reflection on how we are living our lives. The thing is we tend to go about it in such a self-critical way.
We look at everything we think is not working so well and then make a long to-do list of all the ways we want to change. Somehow, we are surprised when it is overwhelming and we cannot keep it up. We feel as if we have failed in some way and are disappointed in ourselves.
Some suggestions for making self-compassionate resolutions
Not surprisingly, we are much more likely to get the best from ourselves if we approach any changes we want to make with an attitude of self-compassion and kindness. We can try and be a friend to ourselves, rather than behaving like our worst nightmare of a disapproving schoolteacher.
Start off with looking to your strengths
Think about the parts of your life that are on track and the things you do well. Ask yourself how you could build on that.
For example: you might be good at your job but have an irritating relationship with a work colleague. Your resolution could be to try to make a difference in how you both relate to one another. Start small by making them a cup of coffee whenever you can. The chances are you’ll be surprised how quickly they warm up to you. It often does not take so much to make a difference.
Choose the changes you want to make carefully
When looking for where you want to change, choose something manageable. You can see from the picture above that ‘improving self’ is a big project, as is ‘save money’. Both are too big and too general.
Even ‘more family time’ is asking a lot. Instead try to be specific—decide to call your mother twice a week; or decide to turn off all your individual screens (phone, tablet etc.) by 9pm in the evening in order to have quality time with your partner.
Set yourself some attainable goals
It takes time to change your habits, so take big picture into account. Set yourself a goal—like making meditation part of your life but then look at the steps needed to get there. Decide to meditate for five minute every day for two weeks. If that goes well, then try for 10 minutes every day for a month. When you miss a day, don’t stop to berate yourself—just carry on the next day.
Celebrate your successes
If you had a good friend who was trying to change some habits you would want to encourage them. Remember, with self-compassion you can be a good friend to yourself. Celebrate every success you achieve. Build in rewards for what you accomplish. When you manage your first week of meditating 5 minutes a day then you could celebrate by giving yourself a treat.
We are all in the same boat.
Whatever our situation and circumstances, people mostly want to be happy and live good lives. Think of all the people who are trying to make positive changes and struggling with them just like you are. None of us is alone in trying to find the way to get the best out of ourselves and live a meaningful life.
Allow yourself to get it wrong
No-one is perfect and it’s a waste of effort to even try. As human beings, we are sometimes going to make mistakes and sometimes we will be brilliant. When you break a resolution, or find yourself slipping back into old habits instead of beating yourself up, try forgiving yourself. Focus on the effort you’ve been making and don’t give up on what you are trying to do just because you had a bit of a blip. Remember to talk to yourself as you would to a good friend. If your friend was struggling with their resolution—how would you talk to them? Would you call them a loser? I doubt it. After all—if we cannot be a friend to ourselves, how can we be a good friend at all?
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.
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.
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
It’s a great life skill to able to look on the bright side as we negotiate the ups and downs of everyday living. The ability to look at a glass and see it as half-full instead of half-empty is surprisingly rare but it’s impact on wellbeing is considerable. It increases our resilience and makes us more attractive to be around. However, we all know people for whom the glass is always half empty. It’s the sort of person for whom there is always a ‘but’, whatever good circumstances are coming their way. Lovely weather is forecast for an outing, but they always take an umbrella. They manage to negotiate a pay rise, but it is not as much as they hoped for. They cook a beautiful meal for a dinner party, but now they are exhausted. Their negativity bias is alive and flourishing!
If we are honest, we can see that although we are not like this all the time, we all have moments where we are just focused on how unsatisfactory things are.
Why is this?
We are constantly on the lookout for threats
Our brain has evolved to keep us safe, alive and reproducing our species. We are programmed to pay more attention to negative stuff and to remember it longer. When you think of our lives as hunter-gatherers this makes sense. Finding a new food source was a good thing but discovering a berry that was poisonous and killed you was much more important—so we remembered it and avoided it the next time we came across it. This is sometimes referred to as the brain’s negativity bias. The brain is always tracking for threats to our survival and once we locate one, then we store it away to remember for the future.
What this means for us now
Of course, in our modern lives there can still be real threats to our physical survival but mostly the negative stuff the brain is identifying and storing away is just part of the wear and tear of everyday life. If we fall out with a family member or get a harsh comment from our boss, it weighs on our minds and we tend to replay it over and over again. An unpleasant encounter in the supermarket over-rides all the courtesy and friendliness we usually encounter. If our favourite restaurant has an off day, all the delicious meals we have eaten there previously seem to be less believable.
The trouble with all this is that can lead to us giving into anger, frustration or jealousy. By focusing on negativity, we highlight our problems and bring them into the forefront of our experience. Giving such weight to the difficult things makes it easier for us to give into our more troublesome emotions, such as anger, fear and jealousy. It can make us tougher on other people because we are operating from this position of threat.
Two aspects of our negativity bias we can stop straight away
Cut the anxiety loops in our minds
We can try to get out of the habit of going over and over stuff that has bothered us and replaying different ways we should have dealt with it. Ruminatingin this way only works the negative memory in deeper and ensures that it stays with us longer. One of the most effective ways of cutting through rumination is with mindfulness meditation. By helping us to be awake in the present moment, we can bring our mind back from going over stuff that has already happened, or other stuff we are worried will happen in the future.
Stop beating ourselves up
We can try to stop telling ourselves off for the way things turned out. How many times do we say to ourselves, ‘I should have….’, ‘If only I had….’.’Why didn’t I?….’ Most of us have a voice in our headthat give a running commentary on how we are managing and sadly, its commentary is often negative. The thing is that we did not do any of those things and it is too late to change it. We can take note for the next time but beating up on ourselves will only increase the negative impact. The most effective way to transform our inner critic into something useful is by showing ourselves the same kindness that we would show a friend in a similar situation.
Here are more good habits that can overcome our negativity bias
Notice the good things that happen to us every day
These can be small things—a sunny morning, a smile from a stranger, a helping hand from a friend. Don’t just notice the first thing—keep your eyes open for all the small but precious moments throughout the day.
Allow yourself to feel good
There is no need to feel guilty or to worry that it is selfish. A moment of happiness, or satisfaction will help you to be more open and accessible to other people. You can share the benefit.
Savour the experience
Once we have noticed something good happening, then we can take a moment to savour the experience and let it sink into our consciousness. We are often too quick to shrug off the good stuff. By allowing ourselves to enjoy moments like the smelling the freshly baked bread in the local bakery, or pausing to watch children playing in the playground we are acknowledging the good experiences and letting them in. This will help to feel more satisfied and less in need of external stimuli.
We can even take a moment to express appreciation for some of the many, small, wonderful things that happen to us every day.
Here is an exercise that you could try
The purpose of the exercise is to help us to connect with experiences that can help us to undermine our tendency to focus on the bad stuff. By really seeing the good stuff and appreciating the effect it has on our moods and state of mind, we can learn to apply it when unpleasant things happen to us. This exercise shows a way of doing this after the event but as we get used to working this way, we can apply it as things happen.
Let me know how you got on with the exercise. I would love to hear how it worked for you.
If you have enjoyed this post and found it useful, you might want to take a look at this free 5-day e-course, HOW TO MAKE SELF-COMPASSION YOUR TOP PRIORITY