Self-Compassion and COVID-19
By Drs Chris Germer and Kristin Neff
Co-founders, Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
As the coronavirus spreads around the world, already in over 80 countries, we are all being affected in some way. Travel is being curtailed, the stock market is tumbling, some schools and workplaces are temporarily closing, and hand sanitizer costs as much as $250 a bottle on Amazon. Closer to home, an MSC program that Chris was scheduled to teach in Hong Kong was canceled because the venue became a quarantine site. Kristin has had to quell the fears of her son, Rowan, who is worried about going to school. Epidemiologists are trying to make sense of the situation, but many questions remain: How can we slow the spread of the virus? What will be the impact of this global epidemic?
“Global” is the key word. Many of the problems we are now facing are global in nature, such as the warming planet, economic inequality, and now a contagious virus. The coronavirus is pointing out just how interdependent we are, with disrupted supply chains slowing down manufacturing and international travel spreading the virus.
Globalization is a fact – the only choice is whether we will work together to solve our problems. In our view, the choice is between reacting with fear or responding with kindness.
Nationalists are seizing upon the coronavirus to reinforce the closed borders agenda, but others are working across borders to solve the problem, such as a new collaboration between Harvard scientists and their Chinese colleagues to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
What can each of us do? This is where self-compassion comes in. Self-compassion boosts the immune system, it reduces anxiety, and it’s the easiest way to keep our hearts open to others. Some measure of fear is a healthy response to a contagious virus, of course. We want to respond to the contagion in a wise manner – with preventive measures that benefit ourselves and others.
In the case of COVID-19, taking steps to not to contract the virus is taking care of others.
Self-compassion can help if the virus is causing you unnecessary anxiety, limiting your ability to work or travel, reducing your income, or if you or someone you know has already contracted the virus. A self-compassionate response to the COVID-19 epidemic may look something like this, modeled on the Self-compassion Break:
- Mindfulness– Become aware of how you feel about the virus. Are you feeling anxious, disheartened, confused? Can you feel it in your body? If so, where? Is your mind preoccupied with the virus? If so, what are your thoughts? Can you validate for yourself how you think or feel in a kind and understanding manner? For example, “Yes, this is hard.” “This is difficult.” “This is really stressful.” Can you offer yourself a little space around your feelings, knowing that it’s part of the current situation we’re all in?
- Common humanity– When you hear news of people struggling with the virus, can you allow this to enhance your sense of being part of a global family rather than feeling separate? Can you imagine yourself in their situation and say, “Just like me.” Or when you reflect on your own distress, can you remind yourself, “Others feel as I do—I am not alone.” “Sickness is part of living.” “This is how it feels to be a human being right now.”
- Self-Kindness– Try putting your hand on heart or some other soothing place, helping to calm some of your anxiety through touch. What words do you need to hear to comfort or reassure yourself about the virus right now? Are they realistic? Can you talk to yourself in a warm, compassionate voice? What actions do you need to take to protect yourself, or to provide for yourself? Can you encourage yourself to take these steps, in a supportive manner?
Notice if this practice makes you feel more relaxed and compassionate or encourages you to take positive action. Feel free to find your own way to be compassionate with yourself, perhaps by engaging in everyday self-care behaviors such as enjoying a cup of tea or taking a warm bath.
Like any crisis, the COVID-19 virus is also an opportunity.
For example, you might find a silver lining in the limitations that the virus imposes on your life—an opportunity to step out of your usual routine. Do you have more time to spend with your family? Is this your chance to read a book that you have gazed at longingly for months?
In the big picture, there may also be a silver lining. Back in 2016, as Chris was taking an Uber back to the Sydney airport, he asked the driver, an elderly man from India, what he thought about the political situation in America. The driver’s answer was unforgettable:
“Human history goes through cycles of expansion and contraction, but the periods of expansion are longer than the periods of contraction.” “Why are the expansion periods longer?” Chris asked. The driver replied, “Because the human heart prefers expansion.”
Due to globalization, it seems that threats like the coronavirus will only increase as the years go by. What kind of world do we want to create as we navigate through them? Will our hearts expand or contract as they bump into each new challenge? A global commitment to living compassionately can make all the difference and self-compassion seems like an excellent way to start. Shall we?