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Is Compassion the Antidote to Anxiety?

Anxiety, the most common mental health struggle in the U.S, can be debilitating and influence all areas of the individual’s life. It can manifest both mentally and physically making individuals feel unsafe and uneasy. Anxiety affects over 25% of children ages 13-18 and over 40 million adults. The increase of technology has also increased mental health struggles throughout the U.S. As stated by James R. Doty, M.D., “chronic engagement of our sympathetic nervous system, depressing our immune system, increasing our blood pressure, causing the production of inflammatory proteins, decreasing our cortisol level… with a very deleterious effect on long-term health.”

In addition to the detrimental impact of electric lights and electronic communication, the increase of social media has in turn allowed individuals to consistently compare themselves to others. This along with the changing expectations of individuals and society has lead to an increase in negative/demeaning self-talk. Calling yourself names and telling yourself you’re not good enough or do not deserve success can trigger a stress reaction. This increase in stress reactions keeps us in survival mode or fight/flight mode causing us to be more impulsive, reactive, and easily influenced personally and professionally.

While there are countless articles and studies about the causes and affects of anxiety/stress, it’s even more important to discuss ways to counteract these responses. “Research has shown that cultivating compassion for ourselves and others can relieve stress.” Approaching the world with kindness, compassion, and love allows individuals to treat others and ourselves with compassion.

Ways to cultivate compassion include mindfulness and loving-kindness meditations, mindful breathing and other relaxation methods. By utilizing these methods it helps us to eliminate the reactive impulsive responses caused by anxiety.

An important piece in reducing stress and anxiety is reframing the way individuals view the world. By creating meaning from events it can reduce the anxious response many of us have. Growing the ability to view the world from different perspectives and with compassion is immensely helpful in shifting our mental and emotional responses.

Compassion in general has many positive affects on individuals. It has been proven that caring for another individual stimulates the pleasure and reward response centers in our brain.

Diane Dreher, Ph.D., explains three ways to experience greater compassion. Each step starts with pausing and taking three deep breaths. The first way is then acknowledging that an event is just an event meaning another person’s behaviors likely do not have anything to do with you. The second way is acknowledging everyone is struggling in some way. This helps the feeling of loneliness or isolation frequently associated with anxiety. Lastly, pausing in order to take mindful breaths and then sending compassion to another individual.

Variations of the above steps can also be used to experience greater self-compassion in order to lift your mood and decrease anxiety. Instead of being angry with yourself for one reason or another, become aware of how you’re feeling and why. Then acknowledge that struggling is part of being human and you are not expected to be perfect. All individuals make mistakes. Lastly, take a moment to send kindness to yourself. Make a conscious effort to counteract potential negative self-talk with words of compassion and love.

By approaching the world and yourself with kindness we can change the way we relate to others and show up within our lives. A small amount of compassion can go a long way in shifting yours and other’s perspectives.

If you’ve found yourself struggling with stress and anxiety it may be useful to try counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!

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