Compassion, in the face of COVID-19
I experienced the first (and hopefully last) personal loss through COVID-19 yesterday. Having contracted Coronavirus, an Uncle and family friend, passed away. I wish to pay tribute to his lifelong devotion to a fulfilled and purposeful life, and pray that his family can bear their grief in these difficult circumstances.
I know that vastly more people are recovering from this illness than those who are dying. I also have an awareness that COVID-19 is just one cause of bereavement or pain at this time. People suffer each day from malnourishment, homelessness, abuse, dementia and mental illness, to name a few. It is also the case that what we are experiencing is a shadow of the loneliness, fear and isolation that bears down on human beings across refugee camps and war-ridden areas around the globe. Despite the risks, we must keep things in their proper perspective. We need to remember that in this period of being asked to stay at home, most of us have the comfort of shelter, running water, safety from persecution and food. We do need to pause, reflect and reevaluate the stress we may be experiencing, during this period of isolation and social distancing. Without wishing to understate the impact of the current pandemic, relatively speaking there is so much more hurt in the world around us. Yet it is also necessary to honor our own sense of worry, and in some tragic cases our felt sense of loss.
Only yesterday a 5yr old died here in the UK. How can one begin to console a family, where this happens? Hiding our pain or rationalizing it away, is not conducive to good mental health. We must feel in order to heal. Our prayers and compassionate sentiments for those near to home (including ourselves) and also for those in other continents, can legitimately co-exist in one space. One of my lifelong mentors used to say, “love, unlike any other commodity, grows the more it is shared”. We need not worry that the human heart will run out of compassion and care – we can take some for ourselves, and still find more to give.
Compassion is a strange thing – it can be heartfelt, consuming one’s thoughts and feelings. Whilst such compassionate reflection reaches others in ways we cannot explain, there is also a need to manifest compassion as real, everyday acts of care and comfort. Moving from heart and mind, to practical application, we do much to ease the stress and strain of others. Such acts always help the person performing them too, for we benefit in our sense of personal character, confidence and esteem. One good, kind act is like a seed sown in the earth – it will bear fruit that you too can enjoy.
Our frontline staff are doing just this – offering hope where there is doubt, health where there is illness and courage where there is fear. I can never repay the debt of care that the surgeon and ITU nurses gave, when my baby daughter required open heart surgery some 12years ago – their patience and generosity will stay with me forever. But not just our doctors, nurses and hospital professionals – there are myriad others without whose sacrifice we could not survive. Our social workers, teachers, porters, police and emergency service personnel, domestics, administration teams, refuse collectors, lorry drivers, farmers, supermarket staff and so many others, are part of the current and collective act of love, hope and courage. We are in this together – including those who are following the advice to stay at home.
But compassion can’t sustain itself through outward expression alone. Compassion also needs to be sent inwards. We simply can’t offer love, kindness and care to another if we are deprived of this ourselves. It will drain us, leaving us tired, empty and personally unwell. Self-care is crucial, yet we rarely think about showing kindness to ourselves. Even if we do, we worry that doing so is selfish, complacent or indulgent. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Specifically, self-compassion can take the form of various ways of being.
Kindness: When we suffer, the only humane approach is to be kind and gentle with ourselves. Even if we need to be tough with ourselves, we can do so peacefully, not necessarily through criticism and harsh judgments.
Hopeful expectations: Tagore, the Nobel Peace Prize winning poet of India once wrote, the night is darkest, just before the break of dawn. Trusting that you will be ok, and find a way through whatever challenge is before you, is deeply self-affirming and therefore self-compassionate
Shared Humanity: Now more than ever before, we are experiencing shared hurt and strain, as one world family of human beings. The moment we expand our awareness, and realise that we are not alone or isolated, we gain a much needed sense of relief and reassurance.
Being mindful: Presently, things are indeed uncertain and frightening. We need to accept this is so and find a way of grounding ourselves until the storm passes. Trying to take each moment at time, and staying present-focussed, will help a great deal
Being self-compassionate might seem unnatural at first. It may feel there is not enough time for this, or it’s just a silly concept. But a stronger, more robust version of yourself will build on the resource you can offer to another. These strategies, adapted from an article by by Margarita Tartakovsky available here https://psychcentral.com/blog/5-strategies-for-self-compassion/can help.
1. Consider how you’d treat someone else. The simplest thing you can do, is to imagine what you’d do if someone you cared about came to you feeling afraid or anxious. What would you say to that person? How would you treat them? Now consider how it would feel if you could treat yourself in the same way.
2. Watch your language. You may be so used to talking harshly with yourself, so much so that you don’t even realise that you’re doing it. It helps to pay particular attention to the words you use to speak to yourself, or the thoughts that you allow to bounce around inside. If you wouldn’t say the same statements to someone you care about, don’t say them to yourself.
3. Comfort yourself with a physical gesture. Kind physical gestures have an immediate effect on our bodies, activating the soothing parasympathetic nervous system. Specifically, physical gestures have the impact of “getting you out of your head and into your body”. For instance, try putting your hands over your heart, carressing your forehead or simply massaging your arm. Any gesture will do, as an exit response to negative thoughts.
4. Memorize a set of compassionate phrases - The following phrases are examples you may wish to adopt, or use as a springboard for your own:
This is a moment of suffering – it won’t last.
Painful experiences are inevitable, but suffering is my choice
May I be kind to myself in this moment…?
These troubling times will bring us together
Even in this, there is some lesson we need to learn
5. Practice noticing your breath – Calm breathing is the foundation for most types of meditation. The process helps to retrain the brain, and dismantle the “fight-flight-freeze” response which is generated in periods of stress or anxiety. Taking time to breathe is a self-compassionate gesture, through which self-soothing is a natural outcome.
6. Do something you love, every day – whether it is reading for 10 mins, using your best shower gel in the morning, going for a brisk walk (safely, in this period of social distancing) or looking out at the sky and absorbing the colours and textures that you see. It may be messaging a loved one or letting those around you know just how much you appreciate them.
7. Keep a gratitude journal – what have you got to be thankful for today? What have you done, that may have made someone else feel thankful? It sounds simple, but we forget the basics when we are ill at ease. Write these down, as a reminder to yourself.
8. Be health conscious – by making good choices of food, keeping to good sleep and wake routines and through at least 20mins of exercise that quickens your heart rate, every day.
I do hope that you keep safe and take care of those around you. I also hope that this article will help you to take care of yourself. Thanks for reading, and sharing it with someone who might benefit.
Dr Bobby Sura Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist Director, Solihull Well Being Clinic https://www.solihullwellbeingclinic.com/dr-bobby-sura
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you feel anything can be improved, do please get in touch. Otherwise, do feel free to share it with friends and colleagues who may benefit. In the period of social distancing, we have a range of remote therapy and counselling sessions available. Feel free to get in touch if we can be of ay help 0121 777 1675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Bobby Sura
Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist
Dr Bobby Sura is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist specialising within the field of lifespan and family based mental health needs. He has over 20yrs NHS experience and 16yrs in the private sector, being the founder of Clinical Psychology Direct and Director for Solihull Well Being Clinic. Bobby is Chartered with the British Psychological Society (BPS), Division of Clinical Psychology (DCP), Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) with eligibility for registration with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) and Association of Family Therapy (AFT). He manages a large service in Hall Green, Birmingham, with a range of Counsellors, Psychotherapists and Psychologists who offer their services on a private, fee paying basis.