Is Compassion the Antidote to Chronic Anxiety?

Compassion for chronic anxiety

Chronic anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns among Americans. In the U.S. millions of individuals suffer from the effects of anxiety, including 25% of children aged 13 to 18.

Overall, chronic anxiety affects over 40 million adults, impacting their ability to function due to an ever-present sense of dread, nervousness, worry, tension and fear. The feeling that one is not safe is one of the most debilitating effects of chronic anxiety.

According to James R. Doty, M.D., the director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, modern life has an unprecedented number of stressful elements. All of these components add up to trigger stress and strain, which can lead to unresolved feelings of anxiety.

Some of the sources of stress are so minor or such a part of everyday life that we may not even be aware of the toll they take on our well-being. 

For example, sleeping in a room lit by the glow of little lights from digital devices is enough to impact our sleep patterns.

Chronic stress results in a constant state of vigilance which negates the ability of the sympathetic nervous system to “power down.” This leads to compromised physical function such as impairment of the immune system and increased blood pressure.

We also stress ourselves out when we engage in negative self-talk or self-criticism. Have you ever called yourself a loser, dumb or stupid after making a mistake? This is a great example of self-criticism. Telling yourself that you’re not good enough is another common example of negative self-talk. Besides being harsh and judgmental, this kind of thinking is enough to make a stressful situation worse, or even trigger a stress reaction.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were an easy, painless and economical solution to the modern plague of chronic anxiety? Would you believe that researchers may have found exactly that?

Some experts believe that practicing compassion, both toward ourselves and others, can be a powerful antidote to the stressors of modern life.

Engaging our sense of compassion involves responding to pain, suffering, and stress with kindness and understanding.

Self-compassion involves being gentle and understanding with ourselves, and according to Doty, “Just teaching people to look at the world from a different perspective, teaching people how to understand that an event is an event and that a lot of suffering is caused when you attach emotional content to the event,” has the power to alleviate anxiety.

Doty goes on to say that the simple realization that we are not alone in experiencing pain and suffering can alter the way we see ourselves and the world around us, and recommends a simple exercise for embracing compassion in our daily lives. Have you ever responded to a person’s negative comment by piling on more negativity? We’re all guilty of tossing back an insult to someone we feel has insulted us, it’s a normal part of human nature.

But Doty encourages a different response. Instead of taking the criticism personally, try to see, “that the manner in which someone interacts with you frequently has no relationship to you.”

Of course, that’s much easier said than done when our adrenaline is surging and we’re feeling the urge to defend our dignity!

Yet research has shown that compassion is amazingly beneficial to our health and well-being. So, exactly how can cutting ourselves and others more slack be good for us?

Doty says that increasing our feelings of acceptance, love and compassion, influences the parasympathetic nervous system which plays a part in our decision-making. Doty and others think that placing ourselves in a more accepting stance leads to greater thoughtfulness and inclusivity, and by extension lowers anxiety.

In fact, research shows that that the simple act of caring for someone else stimulates the reward or pleasure centers in our brain. In a nutshell, compassion simply makes us feel happier!

So, what can you do to invoke a greater level of compassion when you’re feeling anxious or stressed?

Doty has several suggestions, all of which are simple, manageable, and hold the power to help you improve your mood, your day and your compassion.

Be mindful. 

The next time you feel like calling yourself stupid or dumb because you made a mistake, tune in to your feelings instead. Take a moment to identify what you’re feeling and why, rather than rushing to judgment.

It’s not as hard as it sounds—try taking a few deep breaths or count to 10! Chances are you will be rewarded with a greater sense of self-compassion that will feel far better than any put-down you can think of!

Be kind. 

When it comes to others, it helps to remind yourself that at any point in time everyone is going through something challenging or experiencing some level of concern, pain or suffering.

If your loved one snaps at you, stop and consider that they’re going through in that moment. Maybe they’re having a bad day and taking their frustration out on you?

We’ve all been on the receiving and sending end of this type of situation, so be aware that someone’s negative response may have absolutely nothing to do with you.

Again, if you find yourself in a tense situation, take a quick pause, inhale a couple of breaths and instead of sending a heated retort, send some compassion to the other person. Spending a few seconds in mindfulness will pay off by avoiding making a bad situation worse.

Finally, when you’re feeling anxious or stressed because of something you or someone else has said or done, remember that no one is perfect and we all make mistakes, it’s what makes us human.

A little compassion goes a long way. Try it and see for yourself! Recovery is possible—recover your unique, purposeful, sober life by reaching out to the dedicated experts at Cumberland Heights.

Addiction is a chronic, progressive and potentially fatal disease. For over 50 years we have carefully provided the highest quality of care for adults, adolescents and families who suffer from, or are affected by this devastating disease.

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