Anxiety involves our brain, body and emotions. When we detect any kind of threat, our system floods our body with hormones in preparation to fight, flee, or freeze. However this natural threat defense system can become stuck, causing us to experience habitual anxiety. We imagine threats that may not exist or become obsessed with what could go wrong. In these cases, anxiety isn’t protecting us, but limiting our potential to experience life fully.
First and Second Darts of Anxiety
Buddhist philosophy gives a helpful way to understand anxiety. It talks about our “experiences” as compared with our “reaction to our experiences.” The term “first dart” refers to an initial experience, while the “second dart” is our reaction to it. For example it’s normal in life that we experience pain. We get injured, our back hurts, or we lose our job. However, our reaction to that pain determines how much we suffer.
Part of the pattern of anxiety is that we develop habits of resistance to our experience. It may be painful experience, or it may simply be the everyday experience of life. Anxiety is a form of resistance to the ordinary energy of being alive. So a powerful antidote to anxiety is to learn to actually feel, exactly what we feel. Trying to rid ourself of anxiety by pushing it away is to continue doing what caused the anxiety in the first place.
On the other hand if we can learn to just feel the anxiety, we can start to develop some amount of self-compassion. When we allow ourselves to experience feelings of anxiety, we can change our response from self-criticism to compassion. By bringing mindfulness to our experience, we’re more able to just feel what we feel.
From there, we can acknowledge that anxiety is “not our fault” rather than add to our pain with self-criticism. Then, we can learn strategies to work skillfully with what we’re experiencing.
Self compassion – being kind with ourself – helps soften anxiety. It also helps protect us from adding even more anxiety to an already difficult experience.
Self-compassion transforms our painful experiences. Simply put, it’s compassion turned inwards, or “treating yourself like a good friend.” Dr. Kristin Neff says self-compassion has three parts. These are: mindfulness (awareness of our experience), common humanity (understanding we are not alone), and self-kindness (soothing oneself with kind words and gestures).
When we put these three parts into action, we are able to work directly with anxiety:
- Mindfulness reduces ruminating (thinking over and over about what happened or could happen).
- Common humanity helps us recognize our connection to others, rather than feel ashamed of our experiences.
- Self-kindness helps us soothe ourselves rather than criticize ourselves for having anxiety.
Research shows that self-compassion lowers anxiety. One study showed that participants with higher self-compassion reacted to negative events with less anxiety. This suggests that when you treat yourself compassionately during stressful situations, you may prevent anxious feelings. Another study showed that self-compassion decreased anxiety overall. And in a survey of 20 studies, self-compassion was related to lower rates of anxious feelings.
The Nervous System and Anxiety
So why does self-compassion work? According to Dr. Paul Gilbert, there are two branches of our nervous system which drive our emotional experiences. One is our threat defense system, otherwise known as the sympathetic nervous system. The other is the mammalian caregiving system, or the parasympathetic nervous system.
Threat Defense System
As mentioned above, anxiety is triggered when the threat defense system perceives danger. In modern society, we experience threats that are not so much physical as they are psychosocial. For example, we worry how other people see us and if they will accept us. This is called social anxiety. These imaginary threats trigger our threat defense system just like a real threat would. As our body prepares to react to the threat, it cause physical symptoms (a racing heart or shaky hands).
While physical danger is usually temporary, psychosocial threats can be maintained in our imaginations. Hence, our threat defense system stays unnecessarily active.
In contrast, our mammalian caregiving system helps us feel safe and connected to our family and friends. This system is set in motion through soothing touch, vocalizations, and feelings of caring and being cared for. These experiences bring feelings of contentment and peace. And when we awaken our mammalian caregiving system, the threat defense system is turned off.
Self-compassion is a way to activate the mammalian caregiving system. It helps us feel safe and connected, even when we’re alone. Research shows when people practice self-compassion, they’re less likely to trigger their defense nervous response during stressful tasks.
Dr. Chris Germer and Dr. Kristin Neff developed a Mindful Self-Compassion program. Participants learn to access their natural ability to soothe themselves. Through the practice of “soothing touch,” they’re guided to find a gesture of comfort, such as placing a hand on their heart, cheek or belly. Just like a hug from a good friend, we can give ourselves acts of physical kindness.
Other practices include saying compassionate words to yourself. For example, “May I be kind to myself” or “I’m sorry you’re suffering” are helpful phrases. Also, words that remind us that we are not alone can be powerful. Remind yourself, “Other people have felt this way, too.” With these practices, self-compassion turns on our soothing emotional response system in difficult moments.
The Self-Compassion Break
When you experience anxiety, try the following practice. It can help you access the three aspects of self-compassion—mindfulness, self-kindness and common humanity.
- First, notice your experience. You might label the emotion, “I’m feeling anxious” and notice where you feel it in your body. Do you feel a tightness in your throat or chest? Or, you might just say, “This is really hard right now.” When you notice your experience in this way, you bring mindfulness to it.
- Second, remind yourself that you’re not alone. Everyone experiences anxiety at one point or another. You might simply say to yourself, “So this is what it’s like to feel anxiety.” Or, “Many other people experience this, too.” Find words or phrases that remind you of your common humanity.
- Third, soothe yourself with kind words and gestures. You can say “May I be kind to myself,” or “May I be at ease.” Imagine what you would say to a friend in a similar situation. Can you offer the same kind words to yourself?
- Finally, place your hand where you feel the emotion most intensely. It could be your heart, your throat or anywhere else in your body. Notice the warmth of your hand on your body.
To learn more about self-compassion, please visit www.centerformsc.org for online and in-person programs offered in your area.