Although there are a number of factors contributing to stress, the way we RESPOND to stress has a big impact on our health and well-being.
We each have a hardwired ‘stress response system’ is that prepares us to deal with stress with fight, flight or freeze. When activated over a long period of time, this system depletes us on every level. The effect of long-term stress is known as allostatic load, resulting in greater risk of heart disease, osteoporosis and metabolic syndrome.
Self-compassion is another way. Rather than fighting or fleeing threatening situations (and the thoughts and feelings that go with them), self-compassion involves learning to embrace our difficulties and being kind to ourselves in the face of them.
Self-compassion involves three components:
1) accepting whatever pressure we’re under and the unpleasant feelings and thoughts that come with it;
2) putting our stress into perspective (ie, acknowledging that stress and pressure are a part of work and living, and that the current issue is not – and need not – be the end of the world); and
3) moving forward with an attitude of openness and kindness to our circumstances and to ourselves.
Self-compassion means learning to mindfully accept our circumstances, thoughts and feelings, and then responding with kindness – the way we typically respond to those we care about who are suffering.
That’s not to say that someone with self-compassion can’t take a tough decision, take a stand or back out of a dysfunctional environment.
Self-compassion is about the way we relate to our experience – not the content of it. And it turns out to be a pretty powerful tool when faced with stress: Researchers have found that people with high levels of self-compassion experience less anxiety, stress, depression and shame; and more life satisfaction, happiness, gratitude and optimism.
But does that make self-compassionate people less focused on doing well? You might expect that self-compassionate people lose their ‘edge’ and their drive to succeed?
Not so, says the research. The opposite is actually true: People with high levels of self-compassion take more of a learning approach to their challenges, take greater responsibility and are more accountable for their choices than those low in self-compassion.
Why? Because a stressful deadline presents a HUGE threat to someone who stakes their whole identity on it. Taking responsibility and ‘owning’ one’s performances is also a big threat if you’re tough on yourself. You’ve got much more to lose. Being self-compassionate ‘frees up’ critical mental and emotional energy that can be used to actually solve the problem at hand (rather than just stressing about it). And if you fail, it’s not the end of the world. So you’ll be more likely to stand up and take responsibility.
People with self-compassion are much better placed to look