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Cultivating Compassion

Cultivating Compassion as we Emerge from Lockdown- Blog for the Emotional Health Toolkit

Lockdown commenced in the UK on the 23rd March 2020, in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Since this time we have been through a multitude of changes to the way we live our lives. When faced with adversity and threat, such as a global pandemic, the human brain goes in to ‘protect’ mode which often results in a decreased ability to be receptive to processing new information efficiently. We may notice that our thinking may be unclear or muddled or that we tend to pay attention to negative over positive information. It takes time for the human brain to get used to an adverse situation such as the lockdown imposed on us, but after a while our brains begin to open up to the prospect of productivity again. It is important to note that the body’s response to threat and adversity is a normal process and not one to be pathologized. Examples include the anxiety we may have felt at times, which for some may have been overwhelming in terms of the thoughts, emotions and physiological sensations we have experienced. Many of us will have made self judgements in respect to how we thought we would cope, but may have been surprised at the resilience of human beings in the face of adversity and how we have coped with what has been sent our way over the past few months.

I am sure we have all dealt with a lot during lockdown including lack of social contact, working from home, home schooling children and coping with trying to salvage businesses, careers and perhaps finances. As natural social beings, being restricted from socialisation has been difficult for many and this may have impacted upon our emotional wellbeing. After months of managing multiple roles and separation from family and friends we find ourselves moving out of lockdown phase by phase. Undoubtedly, this brings with it some uncertainty, anxiety and fear. There is research indicating that the initial elation at lockdown being eased may be accompanied by melancholy as we are faced with the reality that life is not the same. We are having to make room for loss and grief in respect to the new version of the world we are now faced with. Coronavirus has impacted not only on people’s health but the way that we live and will continue to live our lives. “ Towards the new normal and beyond” is a phrase being used by the British Psychological Society to describe the way we are all moving forward with this new way of life. I think that this captures the essence of the fact that life will be redefined for many as a result of Coronavirus.

It is natural that people will have different opinions on how to re emerge from lockdown. There will be natural dissonance amongst sections of society as we navigate forward. Even within an individual, cognitive dissonance can occur when we may find ourselves behaving in a way that goes against a belief or value that we hold. For example, many of us may be finding that we have contradictory beliefs around emerging from lockdown, such as our beliefs about social distancing being at odds with our natural urges to socialise and be with others. The impact of reduced social contact on our emotional wellbeing can lead people to attempt to reduce this observed ‘dissonance’ in more creative ways such as online socialising through video calls and events such as video bingo or quizzes.

We have coped with much adversity since lockdown and the majority of us have worked hard to adhere to guidance and and have been instrumental in containing the spread of the disease. There is much research that indicates that during times of crisis, individuals may connect with strangers in a way that they have not before. Coronavirus and the threat that it imposes has brought many communities together. Isolation support groups and the many volunteers doing food delivery are wonderful examples in many communities. It would be wonderful if we are able to continue to build on this new found cohesiveness and we are able to cultivate increased compassion towards others as we navigate the next steps in emerging from lockdown. As human beings our empathy can unfortunately have limits. We are all fatigued after months of lockdown and the restrictions that we have had imposed on us. The feelings that accompany this can lead us to be tempted to speak out or behave in more hurtful ways towards others, such as criticising behaviour or views on how we emerge from lockdown. The effect of ongoing dissonance in respect to how we emerge from lockdown and the behaviour that results, can significantly impact on people’s emotional wellbeing and mental health.

I am keen to keep the emotional wellbeing and mental health of our communities on the forefront of peoples minds by highlighting the need for increase compassion at this time. Compassion is genuine sympathy or awareness of the suffering or experiences of others. We may not be able to immediately see what someone may be experiencing. We need to harness our ability to ‘observe’ what we are feeling, experiencing and noticing in the world around us. If we are able to take a small pause and observe and think about how our behaviour may affect others and their wellbeing, it can make a big difference. Our emotions can overpower us at times. Fear and anxiety can reduce our ability to think clearly and may ahead to people behaving in way as that are consistent with our values. We are all facing the changes in respect to lockdown easing. It is a difficult time to navigate and it is important that we are supportive and compassionate towards everyone navigating the ‘new normal’. For some it may be emerging steadily, for others more slowly and for others not at all for now. It is important that we are able to support each their whatever way we emerge. For some people with pre existing mental health conditions it can be an anxious time in particular. For many, we may have become comfortable at home and it may be a source of anxiety to entertain the new changes and reintegrate back in to the community. Rather than diving in with responses in respect to how people should behave (which may even be unkind or divisive) we need to learn to try and take a short pause. Asking questions to ourselves such what is that teacher, business owner, delivery driver or shop worker, parent going through or been through? How could my behaviour or words affect them right now? It can be helpful to think how would you treat a friend in this situation, what would they want to hear right now? What tone would you use? How can you show compassion towards them? It is also important to take a moment to consider how your own feelings might be getting in the way of you showing compassion to others such as anxiety, fear or anger. We can often act as a result of our own emotions and such reactions can be less considered as a result. A normal but nevertheless sometimes unhelpful phenomenon.

Increasing our compassion towards both ourselves and others is a small step towards helping us navigate the coming months. Self compassion can directly impact on emotional wellbeing and help with the emotional toll that lockdown may have exerted upon us. Increased compassion towards others can reduce the likelihood of negative and unhelpful behaviour towards others too. Small things can create big change and I think we need that right now.