Compassion for yourself and others

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Abri Wilson / Staff Illustrations

The Key to Reducing Anxiety and Depression

Compassion. The word itself can create feelings of warmth, relaxation and happiness. It’s like a soft hand-knit blanket or a steaming cup of yummy hot chocolate.

In a world where anxiety and depression are increasing among young adults and the general population, mental health specialists are looking for ways to help people and have been turning more toward teaching clients the concepts of compassion and self-compassion.

Compassion is defined as the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distressed together with a desire to alleviate it, per the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Self-compassion would be showing compassion to yourself.

Both compassion for others and self-compassion are proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Both are free and available any time. At its core, all you need to do is reach out to yourself and others with empathy and a helpful attitude. 

You might show self-compassion by taking 15 minutes twice a day to do something you enjoy, by keeping a gratitude journal, or by talking to yourself in positive ways, for example. You might show compassion to others by regularly writing to an elderly relative, by calling a friend who’s having a tough time and encouraging them, or by smiling at a struggling parent in a grocery store.

These simple acts of compassion reduce the fight-or-flight response that anxious or depressed people often feel. It is a natural survival instinct, but sometimes the response can go into overdrive and escalate. That’s where compassion and self-compassion can help de-escalate feelings such as fear, danger, being overwhelmed or being alone.

Pierce College Mental Health counselor Brenda Rogers, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, encourages both types of compassion. “Having compassion for others is just as important as having compassion for ourselves,” says Rogers. 

Abri Wilson / Staff Illustrations

“Often I will see people who will come in for depression or anxiety and they will give a lot of grace to everyone else but not themselves. And that’s really hard. Compassion is a beautiful thing in this world. It’s how we help each other. It’s what underlies how we do good things in the world, whether that be donating your time or playing with a child. It’s giving back to the world.”

Students at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom are fortunate to have a culture of compassion. It exists like a fine piece of silk thread, woven through the various student support programs and activities on campus. The thread winds from the Food Bank truck to counselors available through the Welcome Center, to name a few.. 

In December they had massages, games, tutoring and more during finals week.  Their mantra?  ‘Friends don’t let friends go through finals week alone!’ Friends Leahana Dunahoe and Aminah Lambertis, students in the Social Service/Mental Health program, lean on each other regularly for compassion and support, as Lambertis explains.

“You never know what people are going through, even your friends or someone that you think looks fine and has it all together,” said Lambertis.  “When people show compassion to me, it makes me feel really good. It makes me feel, you know, that I can do it because sometimes when you’re at your lowest low and you feel like you can’t go any lower, all it takes is that one person.”

Dunahoe, mother of seven children ranging from infancy to a 22-year-old, reflects total joy as she recounts the many ways her children have helped her.

“When they say the things that they say to me, I can’t even tell you how much it really has kept me going.” she said.  “I cried on my way home and thought, ‘God, you just really have thought about me so meticulously. You’ve put these people in my life when I needed them the most.’

“And I’m the type of person – I’ll have a smile on my face and I’ll be dying inside and I’ll be going through the worst hell I could even think about going through, and I don’t tell people. I don’t talk to people about it. I don’t want my stuff bringing people down.”

Abri Wilson / Staff Writer

As Social Service/Mental Health students, Lambertis are familiar with these sorts of topics, and have some suggestions about self-compassion. “Words of affirmation can be very important,” said Lambertis. 

“Just wake up in the morning and say: ‘You are beautiful. You are going to do something good today.’ Maybe write something – put a sticky note on my mirror or a sticky note in my car that I have to see every day.”

If you have difficulty feeling compassion for yourself or others, know that compassion can be cultivated, according to Psychological Science. Athlete Bergland wrote a nice summary of a study that proved this. It included the use of ‘loving kindness meditation’ (also referred to as LKM) which is frequently used by counselors including St. Martin’s University (Lacey, WA) Assistant Professor Johanna Powell, Ph.D., LMFT.

Powell suggests that students look at what they’re saying to themselves – their inner dialogue. The goal is self-compassion rather than negative, judgmental self-talk. She suggests that students try reflecting on where they’re at, possibly by journaling,  (which helps people reprocess and analyze better). Next, students might want to fill up on things that are positive and affirming.

“Whether you look at YouTube or at Dr. Kristin Neff’s website, do some of the loving kindness meditations,” says Powell. “Once we’ve identified how we want to be with ourselves, we can have this course correction that’s helping invite us to engage ourselves differently.”

Remember, people care, you are not alone, reach out to others in kindness, and give yourself lots of loving affirmations.  You are a good person and you will get through this.

Abri Wilson / Staff Illustrator