COVID-19 and Self-Compassion – Tackling feelings of worry and doubt in uncertain times

By Isabella Sherburn, class of 2020

It’s stage 4 restrictions in Melbourne, Victoria…

You’re up to your third coffee for the day. You haven’t left your desk in five hours – not even to go to the bathroom. You can’t remember the last time you ate a vegetable that wasn’t a potato. The more you reread your essay the more it doesn’t make sense. Why did you leave your essay until the day it was due again? Nobody else struggles with chronic procrastination like you do. Why can’t you just manage your time better? And what can you do to make yourself feel better in times like these?


Self-compassion – it’s self-explanatory

You can show compassion towards yourself. That might sound silly in times like these where most of us are sitting at home working, safe from the outside world where COVID may be lurking. It may even feel selfish considering the healthcare and essential workers going out into the world every day keeping society running.  However, many of us may be feeling sad, stressed and/or lonely during our time at home. This is where self-compassion can be super useful.


Pink Syngonium – image taken by Isabella Sherburn


Your stress response

When you’re stressed you activate the fight-or-flight response (now with the added ‘freeze’ and ‘fright’ varieties!). This response is known to release the stress hormone cortisol throughout your bloodstream. This has a range of effects on your body, including increased heart rate and muscle contraction. This is similar to how your body responds to exercise.

But exercise is a healthy stress! When stress becomes chronic it can lead to all sorts of further complications. You may find it difficult to fall asleep or concentrate on your work. You may also experience physical symptoms such as tension headaches.

Disturbingly, the stress response can also be induced if you just talk to yourself in a critical manner in your mind. This system can also be activated if you’re worrying about the future and imagine something bad happen even if hasn’t happened in real life.


How does self-compassion work?

Self-compassion aims to mitigate the stress response by activating a different system in your body: the soothe response.

Yes, it is as calming as it sounds. It is the response that is activated when you are giving or receiving care, affection or support. It involves the release of the “love” hormone, oxytocin, to counteract the release of cortisol. Oxytocin is nicknamed so because it is released when a mother breastfeeds her child, or when young children receive attention from their parents.

Self-compassion is difficult because many of us grow up believing tough love is the way to go. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, kiddo. Be tough! Get after it! Hustle! However, working while stressed is not very effective, and speaking to yourself with self-criticism just makes things harder.

The soothe response calms down your body and can allow you to get on with your day with a clearer mind. Self-compassion is also associated with overall feelings of happiness, optimism and a curious mindset.


But how can you practice self-compassion at home?

Dr. Kristin Neff pioneered self-compassion research and has a dedicated website to it! Many psychologists also use self-compassion as part of their therapy. However, you can practice self-compassion on a day-to-day basis thanks to the simple process outlined by Dr. Neff.


showing self-compassionA person attempting to show self-compassion – image taken by Isabella Sherburn


Step 1: Speak to yourself with kindness

The first step is to notice the way you speak to yourself during difficult times. You may be feeling frustrated with yourself because you went to bed at 12am again instead of going to be at 10pm like you planned. Tell yourself that it’s okay! You are not a failure – you are just experiencing a bump in the road.


Step 2: Acknowledge that everyone goes through hard times

Next, it is important to remind yourself that you are not alone in your failure. Many other people have had this exact same experience as you. There are so many people out there right now during this pandemic who have been going to sleep later than they would prefer.

This can seem counter-intuitive because you don’t want to diminish your feelings. You are allowed to feel this way but it’s important to remind yourself that you are not the only person to have ever felt this way!


Step 3: Take a balanced approach to your uncomfortable emotions using mindfulness

Dr. Neff states on her website that “We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time”. Many people avoid feeling their uncomfortable emotions altogether, while others may over-identify with the uncomfortable emotion by allowing it to consume them. Neither approach is balanced.

Instead, Dr. Neff suggests you aim to be mindful of your emotions. This involves being aware of your emotions without judging or suppressing them. This is easier said than done. Apps like Smiling Mind have self-compassion specific mediations you can use. Dr. Neff also has guided meditations and other exercises on her website you can use to cultivate your self-compassion practice.


So, the next time you’re beating yourself up about staying up past midnight when you know you have work to do the next day remind yourself that it’s okay! Many other people have felt the exact same way you do, and although your feelings are uncomfortable right now, it will pass.


Additional resources for those who are interested:

The Science of Self-Compassion – Dr. Kristin Neff

What is Self-Compassion? – Centre for Clinical Interventions