Manage anxiety effectively with self-compassion
Waking up every morning with a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach, rising into your chest, before you are even fully awake – Does this sound familiar? Beating yourself up for not feeling stronger, more confident, courageous? Does that really help or make things worse?
Research shows that by applying some simple mindful self-compassion strategies you can reduce anxiety and related symptoms.
There is a large and growing body of research (including my own) supporting the health and wellness benefits of self-compassion. It is strongly associated with fewer negative states like depression, anxiety, stress, shame, and negative body image, and it is strongly linked to more positive states like happiness, life satisfaction, and optimism.
A personal journey
I am an integrative psychotherapist by profession and have completed training courses in Compassion Focused therapy under Professor Paul Gilbert. I also have the privilege of being a ‘trained Mindful self-compassion teacher’.
Mindful Self- Compassion has changed my life for the better in so many ways, both personally and professionally, and I live in daily gratitude for all that I have been taught by those who have walked before me and led the way.
When I was much younger than I am now I had my first panic attack at the age of 21. I had suffered from anxiety but was unaware of its impact or that it was not simply physical state.
Since then I have learnt much about the nature of anxiety and how to take control and manage the symptoms. I have been a psychotherapist and counsellor for many years, and my specialist area is anxiety and anxiety related disorders.
My personal journey on the Mindful self-compassion path began in 1996 following a prolonged viral infection where I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome – also referred to as M.E. I spent many years feeling deep shame and guilt and spent a lot of time in resistance- creating further suffering. I would fight through it and continue at a working pace and udertook exercise regimes that often left me weak and unable to walk properly for days. I peaked and troughed over the years and my physical activities lessened- I gained weight – almost 2 stone.
In 2005 I was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia. This is a painful and debilitating condition and has a lot of overlap with chronic fatigue syndrome. Clinical research has begun to provide some answers for what has been a largely misunderstood condition. It is a disorder of the central nervous system. I tried to continue working at the same pace (I have been a clinical hypno-psychotherapist since 1998) but found this increasingly impossible. This led to states of anxiety that I had long since forgotten could occur. I was anxious for many reasons, not least, worrying about the future and a possibility of having to stop my clinical practice- my life’s work, and what brings me deep joy and satisfaction. This led to a vicious circle of symptoms and worry that would often be counter -productive and only add to the many other factors which repeatedly caused prolonged and agonizing flare ups
In 2009 I discovered mindfulness through yoga and then I went on to complete the 8-week MBSR.
I began to feel a deep and profound sense of contentment which I had never felt before. Despite poor physical health I began to feel differently about myself and my relationships with others- bringing about physical and emotional well-being, that with deep gratitude and appreciation, I can hand on heart (literally) say, continues to improve, and flourish.
I continued on the Mindful path with an MSc in Transpersonal psychology in 2010 where I developed a deeper appreciation of mindfulness and completed the 8-week MBSR training. During this time real transformation began to occur, as I completed the undertaking of research into self-compassion. I met David Oldham, who became my meditation teacher, mentor, and a dear friend. David created and facilitated an 8-week compassion focused wellbeing weekly programme for patients who attended the local day hospice. He introduced me to the work of Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, and Paul Gilbert.
It was here, during my own thesis research that I had the most profound learning experience. My study reflected “the ‘lived experience’ of applying compassion and self-compassion whilst learning a number of coping strategies and techniques, such as mindfulness and meditation and other compassion-focused activities. The programme I researched was developed to help people cope better in their everyday lives in relation to their on-going journey through cancer and recovery. The results from my study indicated that there was a reduction in anxiety levels and an increased sense of well-being; self-compassion was learnt from compassion: Self-compassion can be learned and supported by the practices of mindfulness and meditation. There are positive benefits to being in a group and sharing the experience. My study supported earlier research as it supported the findings of Pauley and McPherson (2010).
I have found through Mindful self-compassion I am learning to be kinder to myself, and have found that if my mind wanders into the past, to focus on regret, sadness, anger or resentment, then the practice of being mindfully in the present moment has enabled me to refocus much more easily and avoid the unnecessary and tiring ruminating that has often occurred over the years. If I begin to wander into the future and worry about the ‘what ifs’, I have been more able to remind myself that we cannot predict the future and the present moment for me is the only reality.
The integral practice of Mindfulness, meditation, and self-compassion that I have learnt over the years has enabled me to heal a great deal of physical and emotional pain and become mobile again. In my personal and professional life I am, through self-compassion and acceptance, achieving a level of happiness, calm and contentment that is progressively being maintained.
I undertook the trip of a lifetime twice up to Holy Isle to complete the intensive Mindful self-Compassion (MSC) programme with Kristin Neff and Chris Germer with the mindfulness Association. This was a life changing experience, and coupled with the one year mindfulness training I undertook with the mindfulness Association, I feel an energy and vibration in my body that tells me I am healing and learning, and evolving towards being a happier, more fully present person and my life continued to transform daily in unexpected and wonderful ways.
In the summer of 2014 I completed MSC teacher training at Bangor University, becoming one of the very first cohort of European ‘trained teachers’ of the Mindful self-compassionate training programme and have since run a number of courses and day retreats, and have just completed teaching my fourth 8-week Msc programme, and as always it is a profound privilege to share this body of work and the healing journey that is ‘the mindful path to self-compassion.
I continue to walk the mindful path, slowly, with care and compassion, and the recognition that from time to time I may wander off as life presents its challenges, but I know how to treat myself kindly, and with compassion when this happens, so I gently come home to the path with an open heart and deep gratitude.
A couple of practices to reduce anxiety
There are many techniques and strategies shared on the MSC programme and through mindfulness practice. A couple of quick and easy ways to settle anxiety are shared here:
Soles of the feet
This is a very effective way to anchor your awareness in body sensation, especially when you’re upset and can’t calm yourself down.
- Stand up and feel the soles of your feet on the floor. Rock forward and back a little, and side to side. Make little circles with your knees, feeling the changes of sensation in the soles of your feet.
- When you notice your mind has wandered, just feeling the soles of your feet again.
- If you wish, you can begin to walk slowly, noticing the changing sensations in the soles of your feet. Noticing the sensation of lifting a foot, stepping forward, and placing the foot on the floor. Doing the same with both feet as you walk.
- As you walk, perhaps also noticing for a moment how small the surface area of your feet are, and how hard your feet work to keep your body off the ground. See if you can notice that with appreciation or gratitude.
- When you are ready, returning to standing.
© The centre for Mindful self -Compassion
The 3 x minute meditation or 3 x minute breathing space (as it is often called):
This 3 x minute breathing space meditation was developed within the practice of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (Williams et al 2002) and is an extremely useful practice when time is limited but can also be used at any time during the day simply to bring ourselves back to the present moment of our experience and back to our mindful practice. The meditation is structured as follows:
1st minute – AWARENESS – Paying attention to our present moment experience. Noticing with awareness how our minds are, how we are emotionally, how our bodies are here and now paying attention to any particular sensations that may be present.
2nd minute – GATHERING – Paying attention to our breath as a means of gathering our awareness and being ‘present’ in each moment, each in-breath and each out-breath
3rd minute – EXPANDING – Opening up our awareness from the focus on the breath to the whole of our bodies and the environment that surrounds us.
Add to this placing your hands over your heart to feel the ‘soothing touch’ is a powerful remedy to anxiety and anxious thoughts and this can be practiced in combination with the ‘soles of the feet’ practice above’
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