Healing Suffering With Self-Compassion


In the past blog posts I talked about how evolution has hard-wired us to protect ourselves so we can survive to see another day. One of the mechanisms for survival I mentioned was the fight-flight-freeze response when we saw a tiger. In this day and age we know we are not going to be eaten up by a tigers or be harmed by anyone under ordinary circumstances when we step out of our houses; we have developed very sophisticated rules to be able to live in our crowded society without coming to harm.  You may have noticed that living in our society does not however eliminate the problem of stress we feel almost everyday; this stress is not unlike the stress we felt when we saw a tiger, although now it is in the form of emotional and internal stress. Strangely, we are still using our thousands of years old way of coping with this stress: the fight becomes self-criticism and we turn on ourselves, the flight becomes the self isolation and we avoid relationships, and the freeze becomes self-absorption and we get struck in our own thoughts.

In the last 10-20 years there has been lot of attention given to coping effectively with stress. It is becoming apparent that what ever that’s causing the stress or suffering becomes amplified if we try to resist or ignore it. With resisting we may turn sleeplessness into chronic insomnia, anxiety into panic attacks, temporary grief into chronic depression, back pain into chronic pain syndrome. We may feel this resistance in the body as a muscle tension, in the mind as rumination and in our behavior as avoidance. There is lot a of information about “techniques” that will allow you to feel better within minutes but unfortunately these are not lasting solutions. If we want real change we have to feel and accept our suffering.

Mindfulness and acceptance are opposite of resistance; it changes the process by which the resistance amplify the psychological suffering. When we turn our attention to the source of our suffering it may at first amplify the suffering so it is really important to use our intuition to distinguish between safety and discomfort. Feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable doesn’t mean unsafe; hurt doesn’t necessarily mean harm but we must know the difference. Generally speaking it is best to take the middle path between facing and avoiding.

When our suffering is profound than mindfulness by itself may not be enough. When we are anxious and we try to be mindful our anxiety may become worse. In this kind of situation loving kindness and compassion towards oneself will diminish any intractable discomfort. Self-compassion is bearing witness to ones own suffering and responding with kindness and understanding. It means taking care of ourselves just as we treat someone we dearly love. We have to also remind ourselves that we are not the only person suffering in the world, it is common to all humanity; and we needs to have open-balanced awareness and not get absorbed in our troubles, rather we need to approach our feeling with sense of curiosity.  Self-compassion is a way of responding to what’s happening within us and who we are in a healthy way. We don’t want to assume that there is something wrong with us that should be fixed. We don’t want to throw ourselves away and become something better; rather it is about befriending who we really are. This is the essence of self-compassion.

We give ourselves kindness and understanding NOT TO FEEL BETTER, but BECAUSE we feel pain. We have to contact the sorrow before we can become compassionate.


The art and science of self-compassion by Christopher Germer



Listening and Guiding our Self Protecting Emotions

We looked at how the anger, anxiety and disgust act as self-protecting devices that evolution has designed to protect us. They have served many species for millions of years. But these emotions come with limited instructions and tell us very little about what to do in certain situations in our modern times.

Recently I went to return a flashlight to a home hardware store. It wasn’t working and I didn’t have a receipt. I was given one excuse after another why it couldn’t be returned; even the manager was unhelpful. They was ‘sticking to policy so rigidly that it just made my angry.

I could feel my jaws tighten, eyes narrow, the tone of voice changed to more assertive and the urge to speak/ scream/ lash out / hit something or someone can increase if we don’t listen and guide our emotions.  Luckily I walked away long before that happened. As our anger gains momentum it exerts increasing control over our mind. This control is even easier if we are tired. Our anger is designed to threaten others who are threatening or blocking us. We can shift to hyper – protective mode and slightest thing can throw us into fury, tears or anxiety; and sometimes resulting in consequences we did not intend.

This hyper protective mode served us well in the past to overcome the life threatening dangers, but in modern time it is quite often not clear what the measured response should be, over reacting can be embarrassing and no reaction at all can send a massage to others that we are push over and with time we will be just ignored.  So what are we to do?  First we have to learn not to act them out without standing back and deciding what to do.

Similarly when we are anxious we can’t always run away in today’s world. If we did that we may never learn the skills to cope with anxiety.

Other times when we need to listen and guide our emotions are when our leaders summons these emotions within us. We have to be cautious that we are not led blindly by our emotions when an inspiring leader summons them within us. Hitler was able to generate passion and pride in his audiences, and his audiences allowed these emotions to work in and through them with horrible consequences.

The threat/self- protection system was designed to protect us. These primitive little devices have served us well in the past, but in modern world they need our guidance and our modern mind to contain them.


The compassionate mind by Paul Gilbert

“SELF PROTECTION” – strategies using emotions but with potential problems.

Threats to life has been in existence since life began. Evolution has been busy trying to protect us. We have the immune system for example to protect us from the microbes ; we throw up if we ingest toxin or spoiled food and there are numerous other mechanism for self-protection. I find it fascinating how evolution has evolved ways to protect us from threats posed by others and that’s what todays posting is about. It is particularly interesting to see how our emotions has been designed by evolution to be part of the overall self-protection system.

Our brain is capable of many emotions and ways of thinking. Further, we have developed ways of knowing what the others true feelings and intentions are towards us, and then we can avoid them or engage in submissive and appeasing behaviour if they seems more powerful than us. Take the emotion anxiety ,we have a pretty good idea that when we feel anxious we are facing things that could harm us and we may feel added desire to run away from or avoid them; this makes anxiety a fundamental self-protection strategy.We are not born with any specific fears but we have the ability to learn how fearful to be in a given situation from our life experiences and our sensitivity; so everyone will experience the same situation with different intensity of anxiety. Some may experience it in excess, others not enough and some will experience it proportionately for that situation. Those with the mismatch of anxiety and the situation will have difficulty avoiding harm.

Anger is another key self-protection emotion. It gets activated when our path to something we want gets blocked. The anger generated can be powerful because we have an incentive / resource – seeking system within us which is programmed so that if there is a reward to be had ( especially if it to satisfy our basic need and not just our wants) we are strongly motivated to acquiring it and anything that come in our way is not looked upon as kindly. Frustration and frustrated anger makes us put more effort into a task to try and force things trough.

Another form of anger  related to frustration is called retaliatory anger; this gets activated when our resources, status and social position is threatened. For example if our work is criticized, or if someone takes advantage of us, or behave unfairly, or cheats us, we will feel anger and want to retaliate. We want the other person to do as we want, maybe demand apology or a submission or make them suffer too. All this will make us feel safe;, imagine if we lived in a world where anyone could challenge us, cheat us without any fear of retaliation. We are unlikely to feel safe under those conditions. Unlike the protective strategy of anxiety where we run away and avoid the unpleasant situation, here we want to be engaged more to over come the obstacle or get the better of the other person. But we have to be cautious and not lose control , because our modern mind can easily be inspired by retaliatory anger and cause terrible suffering in the world.

Another of the major defensive emotion is disgust, which is intended to help us detect and stay away from noxious substances. We spit out bitter-tasting stuff with disgust because it is a good guide to possible toxic substances.But we can also feel disgust for range of things including the behaviour of ourselves and others. We may feel contempt for ourselves or others in judging the behaviour in question. Paul Gilbert writes ….” Researchers think that it is often when the emotions of disgust and contempt are blended with fear and anger that we become capable of terrible thing. When we see our enemies as both dangerous and contemptible or as ‘ infecting our ways of life or contaminating our values’, this sets in motion the defensive strategies of detect, protect, avoid , subjugate and eradicate. These strategies are very useful when focused on dealing with diseases and genuine contaminants, but aimed at other humans, they can lead to atrocities and genocide. When we feel disgust at aspects of ourselves, we may also wish to get rid of,purge or otherwise eradicate aspect of ourselves. So disgust is an archetypal process – originally evolved as a basic self-protection strategy  – but it can now lead us into serious trouble.”

“The emotion of disgust comes into play when we think in terms of goodness and badness and wanting to ‘purify’, get rid of ‘ and ‘destroy’, and has been used in both religious and non religious ways to attack and annihilate people seen as ‘defilers’. Hitler regarded the Jews as an ‘infection’, and once people use this archetype to view others, we’re into ‘search/remove/destroy’ territory where our compassion brain systems are turned off”.


The Compassionate Mind. By Paul Gilbert

How to cope with anxiety without drugs- part 5 -Think Realistically.

Our mood and feelings about a particular situation are largely determined by what we think. If for example you are stuck in a traffic you can either say to ourself I am going to be stuck here all evening and start worrying about how you will never get all the things you need to get done before tomorrow or you can accept that you are going to be stuck there for a while and take this time to relax before you have to tackle the tasks you planned for the evening. It is the same situation but depending on how you viewed the situation the mood to do the tasks when you get home will be totally different. On the one you could arrive home all anxious and stressed out or you may come home relaxed and ready to tackle the jobs you had lined up for yourself.

Here we are going to look at how our distorted thinking can spark anxiety in us and learn how to  recognize the distorted thinking and replace it with more realistic thinking. Anxiety prone people are quite often engaged in fearful self talk. When they face any perceived difficulty they immediately start thinking “what if  such and such happens?”; what if I panic, then people will laugh at me or what if I am awkward and embarrass myself, that would be horrible etc. Just noticing when you fall into “what if” thinking pattern is the first step towards gaining control over it. But the real benefit come when you start countering the negative – what if thinking – with more positive thoughts which are supportive and reinforce your ability to cope;  such statements as “so what “- “these are just thoughts” or ” this is just a scare talk”.

Type of distorted Patterns of Thoughts which provoke anxiety:

Catastrophizing thinking is when one imagines that some disaster is imminent, and this is based on very little convincing evidence; for example, if cough goes on for more the two weeks then I have a lung cancer, or if I am tired it must mean I have a cancer, or on an exam paper one question was left unanswered means I am going to fail badly or pain with urination means I have sexual transmitted disease etc. Here the bad stuff is over estimated and the your coping ability is under estimated. What are the odds that if you are tired it means you have a cancer. There are lot more other plausible reasons why you maybe tired, not sleeping well, not eating healthy, viral illness, diabetes, hypothyroidism etc. To correct this kind of thinking you have to first identify the distorted thinking, then ask what is the possibility of it being true, almost certainly it going to be very low, then replace it with more realistic thoughts.

Filtering is when you focus on the negative features of the situation and ignoring all the positive ones; for example you do a presentation on the latest product your company has developed and you get a feed back what was good about the presentation and how you can improve it by making minor changes. You just focus on the negatives and decide the presentation wasn’t any good. To counter this kind of thinking one has to stop this pattern of thinking, which is usually habitual and focus instead on the solution to the problem. Stop seeing the glass half empty but focus on the glass being half full.

Polarized Thinking is when things are either black or white ,good or bad, you are perfect or you are a failure – there is no middle ground. You have to stop making black or white judgement, think in term of percentages if you like;  65% good and 45 % bad.

Overgeneralization is an exaggeration. Counter it by quantifying it instead of using words like huge, awful, massive  or minuscule; for example instead of saying massive debt , you could say I owe $24000.

Mind Reading is when you assume what the other person is thinking without actually checking it out with them; you might think your friend didn’t smile at you because he or she is mad with you when in actual fact your friend is having a bad abdominal cramps from eating something that didn’t agree with him or her. You have to counter it by checking it out with the party involve or regarded your assumption as a hypothesis until further confirmation or refutation is available.

Magnifying is another form of exaggeration, where degree or intensity of the problem is overinflated; like minor criticism become scathing criticism, minor obstacles become overwhelming barriers etc. However , your ability to cope with the problem is minimized.This pattern creates a feeling of doom and pessimism which give rise to anxiety. You can counter this kind of thinking by convincing yourself or saying to yourself that ” I can cope” and “I can survive this”

Personalization thinking is when you frequently compare yourself with others, trying to determine who is smarter, more competent, better looking  and so on. You view your own worth as dependent on how you measure up to others. Then you become anxious worrying whether you can actually do measure up to others. You have to catch yourself comparing yourself to others and remind yourself that everyone has strong and weak points. By matching your weak points to someones strong points would be very demoralizing and anxiety provoking.

“Shoulds” are when you have rules about how you and other people should act. If other people don’t follow the rules it angers you and if you don’t follow the rule then you feel guilty; ” I should be a perfect friend, parent and spouse ” , “I should act nice and never display anger”  etc. The personal code of conduct is so demanding that it is impossible to live up to it.  When the you fall short of this demanding conduct it is anxiety provoking. Counter this kind of thinking by avoiding words like should, ought, have to or must. Try to use words like prefer. So you prefer to be a perfect friend , parent or spouse etc.


Coping with Anxiety

Edmund Bourne and Lorna Garano

Related articles:-

How to cope with anxiety without drugs- part 3 Relaxing the Body

Finally we come to what everyone has been waiting for, the strategies for coping with anxiety. The non medication strategies include ; relaxing the body, relaxing the mind, thinking realistically,facing your fears,getting regular exercise, eating right to be calm, nourishing yourself, simplifying you life, turning off your worry and learning how to cope on the spot. There is a role for medication but only in severe cases of anxiety where it is causing severe disruption in the functioning of  persons daily activity. The mild to moderate anxiety can be controlled without drugs.

Please note these strategies has to be practiced regularly to get the full benefit, doing them occasionally will not be sufficient; you have to make these practices part of your life. I know because I have been meditating since I was 13 years old and every time I neglected to do it regularly my life become disorderly, resulting in absolute chaos, and several times in dire consequences. I have finally learned not to neglect this precious gift that my father introduced to me so long ago. Regard these practices as precious gifts and practice them daily. It is more important to be consistent daily rather than to spend longer time but doing them only occasionally. There is more benefit to be had doing it daily for shorter time, of course if you can spend longer then so much the better.

Today we will look at how to relax the body. Anxiety causes physical sensation in our body such as shortness of breath, muscle tension, hyperventilation and palpitations. When we have these sensations in our body it tends to reinforce anxiety producing thought, setting up a vicious cycle. We want to break this cycle by relaxing the body. In a relaxed body there is no room for anxious mind.

Some of the techniques for relaxing the body include progressive muscle relaxation,passive muscle relaxation, abdominal breathing and yoga. I have posted low some videos demonstrating these techniques. I am afraid you will have to sign up for a class to learn yoga.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Passive Muscle Relaxation

Abdominal Breathing Relaxation

Next time we will look at how to relax the mind.  Have a great weekend and my you be happy and at peace.


Coping with Anxiety

Edmund Bourne and Lorna Garano

How to cope with anxiety without drugs- part 2 Causes of anxiety

In part one we looked at the different type of anxiety disorders. In this post lets look at the causes of anxiety. The causes will not necessarily help us cure the anxiety ; the cures are independent of whether we know how the anxiety disorder developed. So we can still heal without knowing what caused our anxiety disorder. Usually there are multiple causes operating at different levels that give rise to the anxiety condition; that is why it is rarely possible to cure someone by  eliminating just one causal factor. Some of the causes that causes anxiety maybe hereditary, biological, family background and upbringing, conditioning, recent life changes, our self talk, our personal belief system, our ability to express feeling, our current environmental stressors etc. But in addition the duration or the length of time the anxiety causing factor was present also contribute to final outcome of the anxiety disorder.

Long term predisposing factors are conditions that sets one up from birth or childhood to develop anxiety difficulties later on; such as heredity, dysfunctional parenting, or early trauma or abuse ; for example parental neglect, rejection, over criticism, over punishment, over cautiousness, alcoholism, or physical and/or sexual abuse.

Recent circumstantial causes include situations where there is a heightened level of stress over the past few months such as significant loss, significant life change e.g. major move, starting a new job, illness or recreational drug use – especially cocaine, amphetamines, or marijuana.

Maintaining causes are those factors that are currently in ones behaviour, attitude and lifestyle that keeps anxiety going once it has developed. These include muscle tension, fearful self talk-“what if” thinking, mistaken beliefs about self, others, or life; continued avoidance of fear or fearful situation; lack of movement and exercise; caffeine, sugar, and junk food consumption; lack of self nurturing skills; excessively complicated lifestyle and environment; indulging in habit of worry; and low self-confidence and self worth,  feeling one is a “victim” rather than empowered to ” take charge” of anxiety.

Lastly there are neurobiological causes which include deficiencies and imbalances of neurotransmitters;excessive reactivity of certain brain structures such as amygdala and locus ceruleus; insufficient inhibition of excessive reactivity by the higher brain centres such as the frontal or temporal cortex.

Treating anxiety without drugs is most helpful by modifying the ” maintaining causes” above, they are those factors that keeps the anxiety going once it has been established. The  anxiety  from other causes are indirectly helped once the maintaining causes are eliminated. It is hard to do anything for hereditary factors but one can learn to change ones behaviour to anxiety. The childhood trauma and abuse needs treatment usually from a qualified therapist.

In the next post we will look at some specific techniques for coping with the anxiety and the role for medication.


Coping with Anxiety

By Edmund Bourne  &  Lorna Garano

How to cope with anxiety without drugs:- part 1 Different types of Anxiety Disorders.

Someone recently asked to write about over coming anxiety without drugs. It is a large topic so I will deal with it by posting series of posting, for those who are not interested in anxiety I will try add something interesting on “pages”; so you can get to these posting by pressing the page button on the side bar.

Anxiety can be devastatingly disabling condition.It consumes so much energy, thus keeping us from cultivating qualities that would make us genuinely happy. It affect our family and our work. It is huge cost to the person, family and work. It is very common, up-to 25% of general population in the USA have serious anxiety disorder sometime in their life, I suspect the figures are similar in Canada.

We need to know little bit about different types of anxiety disorder before can talk about specifics about the treatment. Different anxiety type will require different approach to the treatment. There are seven major anxiety disorder, I have posted the video below which explains different types but only mention five of them, they omit agoraphobia and specific phobia; but do explain panic disorder, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Agoraphobia is a fear of having a panic attack in situations that are perceived to be far from safety  or from which escape might be difficult, such driving on a freeway or waiting in a grocery line.

Specific phobia is a strong fear and avoidance of one particular object or situation ; such as spiders, thunderstorms, elevators  or flying.

Here is the video that explains the rest:


Coping with Anxiety by Edmund Bourne & Lorna Garano

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