Be kind to yourself: practice self-compassion

The first article I wrote for the Melbourne Grammar COVID-19 Resource Hub in March was titled Strategies for coping with unease about COVID-19.  The article focused on the importance of managing stress, self-care, routine, good hygiene, maintaining social connections, and making time for exercise, hobbies and activities during the lockdown. There was uncertainty and anxiety, but the numbers contracting the virus in Australia were low compared to other countries; most people were experiencing mild symptoms and would recover without requiring hospital treatment.

An article I wrote in April focused on Coping with grief and loss associated with change and isolation. Around this time people were reporting feeling afraid about the future; their worry was about family, work, finances, health and the loss of freedom due to isolation to protect themselves from the virus. The five stages of grief were outlined in the article to assist people to understand these feelings, and to acknowledge what they were feeling was normal.  

In May there were indications that some normality was returning to our world, although it would be a ‘new normal’. The most exciting aspect of this was to be allowed to reconnect with family and friends in small numbers in our home. So, I felt quite positive as I wrote Transition back to school: How will I cope? to provide students with some guidance on how to cope with the challenges related to returning to school following weeks off campus, engaged in online learning. Despite some reservation and nervousness in the community, it was apparent that most students, staff and parents were relieved and excited about returning to school. Everyone seemed pleased to be back; at last we had the opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, while practising physical distancing of course!

This week, as Term III commences we are experiencing a massive setback; our freedom has once again slipped away as we return to Stage 3 restrictions. The expectation was that what we all did between March and June would be enough to allow us to re-emerge into the world, albeit a different world. I heard people saying that lockdown provided the opportunity ‘for a needed reset’, to develop a more positive and simpler lifestyle, to nurture relationships, to prioritise aspects of their lives, and to work toward being healthier and happier. However, toward the end of the lockdown I heard people saying they were feeling fatigued, and the novelty of the new hobbies and activities had worn off. They were over it!

It is expected that ‘Lockdown 2.0’ may take a greater toll on people’s wellbeing. Just as we were getting used to some level of normality, our lives have changed once again. People are feeling sad, stressed and anxious about the second round of lockdown. They are also feeling frustrated and angry, that despite the previous sacrifices, circumstances beyond their control have led to the restrictions being re-instated. A sense of being punished for the faults of others adds to the stress.

However, we need to remember we have done this before. Drawing on the previous experience may be helpful. Focus on the now, on the things that you can control, and what to do to stay safe. Maintain routine, keep connected, keep talking, engage in physical activity, get good sleep, and accept that the negative feelings are normal but do not need to be prevail. Be kinder to yourself, practice self-compassion.

Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same care and understanding as you would treat a friend or loved one who was in a similar situation. Being more compassionate with yourself, can increase resilience in the face of stress and uncertainty. According to Dr Finlay-Jones, self-compassion is a resource that we can all use to help us navigate the ups and downs of life during, and after lockdown.

Self-compassion boosts the immune system, it reduces anxiety and it’s the easiest way to keep our hearts open to others. Some measure of fear is a healthy response to a contagious virus. Taking steps to not contract the virus is also a way of taking care of others. Self-compassion can also help if the fear of the virus is causing you unnecessary anxiety that limits your ability to work at school or at home (Germer & Neff 2019).

The Mindful Self Compassion Model developed by Dr Kristen Neff is made up of three components to guide the practice of self-compassion:

1.Make time to check in with how you are feeling – be aware of how you are feeling. It is difficult to be compassionate with yourself if you don’t know when you are struggling. Stress can manifest in different ways (e.g., feeling overwhelmed, struggling to sleep, loss of appetite, lack of motivation). It is important not to judge yourself (or others) for feeling this way. Acknowledge how you feel with kindness and concern, just like you would do with a friend

2.Remember that you’re not alone in how you feel – we often feel alone when we are struggling.  Remind yourself that everyone goes through challenging times, experiencing feelings of stress, sadness, and frustration. COVID-19 and associated lockdown is a challenge for everyone, we have not experienced anything like this before. Although our personal challenges will be different, the feelings are part of the human experience. If we can connect to others and talk about our feelings, we may feel less alone. In turn we are likely to be less judging of ourselves for how we are feeling.

3.Treat yourself the same way you would treat a good friend – be kind and understanding with yourself when you are having a hard time. Be patient, have more flexible expectations of yourself and others, and not judge yourself for not doing things perfectly. Initially you may feel self-indulgent practicing self-compassion, being gentle with, and accepting of yourself. Remember, being self-compassionate can help you feel better, to get on with your life, and to be there for others.

Take care, stay well and be kind to yourself and others during Lockdown 2.0.

If you have any questions about this article, please do not hesitate to contact me via email bzjones@mgs.vic.edu.au

Barbara Jones

Head of Counselling and Psychological Services