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Coping with COVID-19: Findings from compassion research

This COVID-19 thing is dragging on and on! It seems like it is always there, threatening, menacing. I, for one, feel like it really is wearing a bit thin.


But findings from some recent research we have conducted has shed light on the importance of compassion in helping us all get through this, taking care of our mental health and sense of social safeness and connection.

Let me give you a summary of what we found!


The research project.


I was very fortunate recently to be involved in a large, ongoing, multinational study of COVID-19 and mental health. The study was led by the brilliant researcher Dr Marcela Matos from the University of Coimbra in Portugal and there were 44 researchers involved across 21 countries from the Europe, the Middle East, North America, South America, Asia and Oceania.


Over 4000 people completed a whole bunch of surveys. There is more to come, but the first paper on this study is out! Here is a link to this published paper: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cpp.2601


We were particularly interested in how people’s perceived threat of COVID-19, this persistent menacing presence that it has in our lives, might affect their mental health, especially in terms of depression, anxiety and stress.


The Findings.


And of course, our data showed that these relationships were all significant, such that the more we feel a sense of the threat of COVID-19 the more likely we are to feel down, anxious or stressed.


And perhaps you notice this yourself. This has been a time of great consternation and foreboding, and I have certainly felt quite overwhelmed by it all. I lay in bed just last night, noticing anxiety brewing in my chest, my thoughts wandering into worry and rumination about it all. Not fun.


The findings regarding compassion.


But here is the compassion part of this research. What if we have high fears of COVID-19 AND we have fears of compassion?


If you are interested in learning more about fears, blocks and resistances to compassion, you can go to video on my YouTube channel called Fears, blocks and resistances to compassion. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jKxI1zp1Gg&t=6s


We found, in fact, that fears of compassion play a very important role, magnifying the negative effect of our sense of threat of COVID-19 on our mental health.


First, if we have high fears of self-compassion, or in other words we have real trouble being compassionate towards ourselves, then our depression, anxiety and stress is likely to be even worse in the context of COVID-19.


We fear that self-compassion will make us appear weak, selfish or too self-pitying, so we soldier on, even berating or attacking ourselves to “just get over it!” But this leaves us unable to self-soothe and just magnifies everything. We end up feeling worse and worse!


Self-compassion is so important! That ability to be sensitive to our own suffering, and committed to trying to alleviate and prevent it. With sympathy and empathy for ourselves. Cultivating strength and the ability to tolerate our own distress. Being non-judgemental of ourselves and offering ourselves care, support, help…and compassion.


Shifting to a self-compassionate motivation can really help when it comes to coping with this pandemic!


I have a video called Let’s talk about Self-Compassion! if you would like to know more, available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrnaDPICJZw&t=4s


Now, we also found that fears of receiving compassion from others had a very similar magnifying effect, especially between perceived threat of COVID-19 and depression and anxiety.


A lot of previous research has found a strong relationship between fears of receiving compassion and mental health outcomes, and our research went further, finding this magnifying effect of fears of receiving compassion on the relationship between perceived threat of COVID-129 and mental health.


We worry that people will judge or reject us if we ask for help, or we worry that they will have the upper hand or take advantage of us, or that we will be left feeling obligated to them. And so we close ourselves off to their help saying, “Oh, I’m fine,” but actually…we’re not fine.


The findings regarding social safeness.


And don’t forget, some of the very difficult aspects to our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic are the health directives: physical and social distancing, quarantine and isolation, extended periods of lock down. Our social worlds have taken a massive hit in the pandemic, so much so that it’s difficult not to feel a heightened sense of social threat.


I was walking through the mall yesterday and a spruiker enthusiastically approached me with his mask pulled down under his chin. I lurched back as if he was a lion who had sprung out of the long grass! Threat system activation, fight/flight response!


It’s actually very sad, but we have lost some of our sense of social safeness as a result of the pandemic. And our research examined this too!


Fears of receiving compassion from others magnified the effect of perceived threat of COVID-19 on social safeness, such that when we have a higher sense of threat of COVID-19, and higher fears of receiving compassion from others, then we are likely to have an even lower sense of social safeness, connectedness and belonging in the world.


Receiving compassion from others is so important too! That ability to open ourselves up and allow others to soothe or comfort, support or help us when we are feeling frightened, sad or overwhelmed. It is tempting to disconnect, hunker down, and hide away. After all, that is what the threat system motivates us to do. But if we can open up to receiving compassion from others, then this can have a powerfully positive effect on our mental health and our sense of social safeness.


Try this: next time you are stuck at home after a COVID-19 test and someone says, “Can I bring you something?” Say, "Yes, please!"


And not to forget the third flow of compassion: offering compassion to others! In our study, fears of being compassionate towards others was less significant in the relationships between the perceived threat of COVID-19 and mental health and social safeness outcomes, although it did magnify the effect of perceived threats on anxiety.


But offering compassion to others is important too, creating this flow, back and forth, giving and receiving, one for me, one for you. When we have the three flows of compassion in balance then we can cope much better. It’s as simple as that!


If you found this article useful, please consider checking out my YouTube channel. You can find a video version of this article, and I upload weekly videos on living a compassionate life, inside and out. And during this COVID-19 pandemic, compassion across the three flows can offer such an important buffer, and can help us all get through this together. The link to my channel is here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCujCvGkc_TFF7KmA0Sk4E7A/featured




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