Anxiety. It’s not an emotion. It is something that you feel, a physical sensation that your brain turns into experiences called emotion.
Anxiety happens before you have an emotion. It is a vibration or physical sense that something is wrong or off balance. It contrasts with ease, comfort, or a sense that all is well. Anxiety effects your range of behaviour by repeatedly bringing awareness to a sense of agitation or upset. These sensations provoke feelings of defensiveness.
When a sensation of anxiety arises in your body, it then moves upward toward your brain. It arrives first in the bottom of the brain and then goes to the right side of the brain. In the right side of your brain, the sensations translate into autobiographical memories. Autobiographical memories are spatial, creative and felt sense memories, not yet stories.
In a well integrated brain, autobiographical memories then cross to the left side of the brain and appear in your awareness as linear narratives or stories. Now we’re talking language, logic, and conscious thought. Keep in mind here these particular stories were elicited by defensive, anxiety laden sensations.
When you attach stories and images of fear to the sensations of anxiety, the stories end up full of thoughts and images that elicit fear in you. Then because you are fearful, the nervous system amplifies the story by paying close attention to it.
Your nervous system is protective by nature, a result of human evolution so, it focuses on fear. Unfortunately, the protective factor does not really distinguish between the fear of a tiger and fear that something more benign is happening, like arriving late to coffee with friends. Thus, it can be easy to amplify benign stories and get caught in cycles of low grade anxiety. Over time, the familiar felt sense of angst, fear and anxiety turns into habitual behavioural responses that can be eradicated.
Compassion elicits Parasympathetic activation
The Autonomic Nervous System controls bodily functions that you don’t have to think about like digestion, breathing, and organ functions. There are 2 branches of the ANS, Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. The Sympathetic branch exists to defend you, it is often referred to as fight or flight. In terms of sensation the sympathetic branch feels alert, on, moving upward, wide bulging eyes taking everything in. It can be overwhelming and, it can be harnessed with the practice of mindfulness and compassion.
The other side to the Autonomic Nervous System is the Parasympathetic branch it exists to create balance and is commonly referred to as rest, digest and recuperate. To remember the difference you can pair parasympathetic with the word parachute, think flowing down to the ground. Switching to parasympathetic feels like getting grounded, calm, long exhales, soft eyes, compassion.
Kirsten Neff, compassion researcher, author and teacher has found that practicing compassion toward self and others helps to eradicate anxiety making you more resilient and optimistic about the future. These feeling states exemplify parasympathetic activation.
Neff’s research also suggests that compassion increases oxytocin, the trust and safety hormone. If that is not enough, compassion decreases the stress hormone cortisol which, in excess, correlates with many forms of disease or dis-ease. So, compassion decreases stress and increases feelings of safety and trust, both of which, facilitate the activation of the rest and recuperate aspect of the Autonomic Nervous System.
So, what is self compassion?
Compassion is a motivation to relieve suffering. It starts with your ability to acknowledge the humanity of yourself and others. Acknowledging that mistakes and struggles happen in everyone’s life is a first step on the road to compassion. Extending compassion to yourself requires the Jedi skill of accepting that it is ok for you to struggle and make mistakes. Acknowledging and accepting an error or omission is not the end though.
Next, you offer yourself the benefit of the doubt. In the same way that you would be kind to a friend who had faltered, you extend kindness to yourself. You could do this in words for example; I’m sad, I really tried hard for that. Or, I’m embarrassed but, I had good intentions. You can also show yourself compassion with physical touch and warmth – resting your hand on your chest, rubbing your arms like a hug, or holding your own hand.
5 basic steps of mindful self compassion are:
- Notice the sensation – right brain.
- Name it – left brain – language,linear category.
- Calm it by consciously cultivating your rest and recuperate, parasympathetic nervous system via the grounding experience of compassion. It helps if you use slow exhales.
- Remain in the experience. Allow the sensation of compassion to integrate. It will move back down into the body laying new neurological pathways of sensation or experience.
- Practice regularly because neurons that fire together, wire together.
Sometimes the simplest things can be the hardest to do. If you find that building a practice of self compassion is something you want to do but can’t seem to actualize it, contact me let’s find a way that I can help.