“Do unto yourself as you would do unto others” A slightly twisted version of the famous Golden Rule, and one that is possibly more important now than ever.
Research shows that the way we talk to ourselves is generally more critical and cruel than we would to others. We tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, shouldn’t be eating so much, should be a better parent, or get more done. All that even though daily stressors have increased dramatically for many of us in a way unknown to most of us before.
Unable to leave the house, visit or care for our loved ones, we’re lacking the social connection, sunlight, and movement that are vital for mental health and wellbeing. At the same time, many are suddenly caring for, educating, and entertaining their children, while facing the same pressure to perform for work. Borders of work and life are blurred more than ever. Others have lost jobs and are facing a fragile economy to find new work.
Self-compassion is a practice that we can all cultivate to make the negative impacts of the pandemic a little more bearable. Research shows that, contrary to the popular belief that self-compassion leads to complacency, it actually increases motivation.
In fact, studies have shown that self-compassion also builds other psychological resources and skills that let us transform a crisis into personal growth by increasing our ability to cope, as well as fostering mindfulness, compassion, happiness, social connectedness, and general life satisfaction.
Moreover, there is evidence that it reduces depression, anxiety, stress, emotional eating, and emotional avoidance – a process referred to as ‘buffering’. And, it protects our mental health by reducing cortisol levels and increasing heart rate variability, and enhancing our ability to perceive benefits during adversity – a process called ‘bolstering’.
Self-compassion is one of nine positive psychology factors and practices that have been shown to facilitate building, buffering, and bolstering processes.
Buffering, bolstering, and building explained
Buffering is the process in which negative psychological impacts of stress are reduced by psychosocial resources, such as positivity, gratitude, or social support.
Bolstering is the effect of sustained mental health during stressful experiences due to psychosocial resources.
And building refers to the act of transforming a crisis into personal growth by learning new skills or adopting a more supportive attitude.
A recent scientific article published by Lea Waters and colleagues in the Journal of Positive Psychology (full reference below) summarised the research evidence behind the potential of nine psychological factors to help us through a crisis through buffering, bolstering, and building.
It’s one of those papers that are brilliant but, if you ask me, don’t reach the broader public in an understandable and/or accessible format quickly enough. It’s timely, too, so I wanted to share it with you in my words and through my filter (#disclaimer).
So, let’s look at what these nine factors entail, what we know about their impact on mental health/ illness (i.e. through buffering, bolstering, building, or a combination), and how you can cultivate them in life (without wanting to add to your list of 'shoulds', of course).
9 positive psychological factors that benefit mental health and wellbeing
Self-compassion is treating yourself with the same care, love, and respect as you would a close friend who was struggling.
Educational Psychologist Professor Kristin Neff explains that self-compassion has three elements: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity.
Mindfulness is required to be able to perceive your pain point or suffering and to be able to do so without judgment (e.g. ‘I shouldn’t feel angry, because I’m better off than many others’). Self-kindness means that once we have acknowledged our suffering, we are proactive in the way that we care for ourselves. What is it that we need to get back up?
Common humanity is the awareness that everyone is imperfect, that failure is a normal part of humanity, and that we all suffer and have struggles and make mistakes. Common humanity is also what distinguishes self-compassion from self-pity, which does not include this element.
You can cultivate self-compassion by paying attention to the times that you talk negatively to yourself. Simply acknowledge this thought pattern and identify a more supportive way to talk to yourself: What would you say to your best friend at this moment?
Remind yourself of your goal and remember that supporting and encouraging yourself will get you there a lot faster than criticizing and insulting yourself. Be patient with yourself to overcome this habit. Ensuring that you don't get upset or frustrated with yourself is the perfect way of practicing self-compassion.
Meaning refers to the extent of making sense of one’s life, perceiving one’s life as worth living, and striving towards a highly valuable long-term goal. These three aspects are also referred to as coherence, significance, and purpose - all of which are compromised during a crisis like the current pandemic.
Finding meaning is central to human wellbeing and flourishing. It has been shown to reduce COVID-19 specific stress, general levels of boredom, depression, anxiety, and general life stress. However, re-evaluating and finding meaning in life can also lead to post-traumatic personal growth.
You can cultivate meaning by
Examining how your beliefs about life have been disrupted and how you can modify those beliefs while keeping them optimistic
Exploring how you can keep connecting to others (possibly more than before) and
Identifying which goals and what mission of yours have been disrupted. What is it that motivates you? What greater service to others are you passionate about?
Coping is the practice of putting conscious effort into dealing with an issue constructively to reduce its negative impact. It is a skill that has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, and increase positive emotions and cognitions, affect, meaning, and sense of purpose.
You can foster coping capabilities by noticing positive events, savouring, practicing gratitude, mindful awareness, positive reappraisal, identifying and harnessing your personal strengths, committing acts of kindness, and applying self-compassion (there it is again).
Courage is the choice to do something frightening and taking a risk considered worthwhile. These two elements of courage, the risk and value of taking a particular action, are often dramatically altered during a crisis. What didn't seem risky before the crisis, such as quitting one's job to embark on an entrepreneurial journey, might now be evaluated as highly risky. Likewise, some goals now seem more valuable than before, such as providing services online.
You can develop courage by
Ensuring your goals are worthwhile
Focusing on the value behind your goals
Mitigating the risks of your goals
Identifying a time when you successfully faced a fear
Rewarding yourself when you face your fears and
Drawing on all your strengths.
Gratitude is the thankfulness or positive emotion perceived after the reception of some kind of benefit. It has been shown to reduce stress, and increase positive emotions, life satisfaction, and resilience. It also fosters the development and maintenance of social relationships.
You can develop a grateful attitude by
Journaling about anything (moments, people, aspects of your life) that you are grateful for. Try to aim for at least ten items on your list.
Writing a letter to someone you are grateful for or to thank them for something you appreciate about them.
Counting your blessings at the end of each day
Think of an aspect about yourself that you are grateful for and
Think of a time when you were in a difficult situation that you were able to solve - then appreciate having overcome it.
6. Character strengths
Meryl Streep once said, “What makes you different or weird, that’s your strength”.
Positive psychology expert Alex Linley defines strength as ‘a pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking or feeling that is authentic and energizing to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development, and performance’.
Using one's character strengths has been shown to mitigate depression, anxiety, work stress, hopelessness, alcohol consumption, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is assumed to bolster mental health by boosting wellbeing, energy, and connectedness; and, studies have shown that it can build post-traumatic growth following trauma, and increase resilience, psychological immunity, and capacity for learning.
You can take the following steps to use your strengths in order to build capacity during the pandemic:
Identify your strengths. You can do this by reflecting on the strengths of yours that have helped you master challenges in the past. Alternatively, you can take a free survey at https://www.viacharacter.org/.
Then, identify opportunities to use your biggest strengths when facing current challenges.
7. Positive emotions
Positive emotions probably don't warrant a definition. Instead, nice affective states, such as joy, happiness, bliss, satisfaction, and many others quite intuitively come to mind. Experiencing positive emotions is important for the enjoyment of daily tasks and a fundamental component of happiness - the holistic type, including hedonia and eudaimonia.
In the past often mistaken as a nice-to-have, fleeting affective state, we now understand that positive emotions play a much more vital role in life and survival. They broaden our awareness and attention, leading to a chain reaction of other positive behaviour (also called ‘approaching behaviour’) and consequences: an increased repertoire of options and choice, the ability to think outside the box (i.e. a heightened sense of creativity), increased knowledge, better social interactions. Positive emotions also serve as internal feedback that things are going in the right direction. Moreover, they have been shown to reduce depression.
You can cultivate positive emotions through living a healthy lifestyle, practicing mindfulness and meditating, enacting kindness, forgiving yourself and others, cultivating a balanced time perspective, prioritising positivity, and social connectedness.
8. Positive interpersonal processes
Positive interpersonal processes include sharing moments of joy and love, kindness, laughter, and gratitude with people we have ongoing relationships with, such as our family members, friends, neighbours, or work colleagues). They have been shown to increase mood and foster intimacy in relationships.
While many of us are restricted in our ability to visit others and share those moments of joy during the pandemic, we can put conscious effort into raising the quality of our encounters when we do have them. You can do this by
Planning a fun activity together (e.g. a walk in the park, a game that can be played virtually, or visiting a virtual museum)
Expressing gratitude for an aspect of the other person that you truly value or
Plan an act of kindness you can surprise them with.
9. High-quality connections
High-quality connections are micro-units of human relationships, in which both people perceive high levels of vitality, mutuality, and positive regard. In contrast to the definition of positive interpersonal processes, this refers to encounters that can be short and involve anyone regardless (i.e. without the prerequisite of an ongoing relationship). Think of a call with the customer service officer or the person at the supermarket checkout.
High-quality micro-connections are fundamental to human health and wellbeing. Research shows that they reduce depressive symptoms and cardiovascular reactivity, boost our immunity, increase cognitive performance and resilience, and release oxytocin - one of our so-called happiness hormones. In short, they help us endure, cope, and thrive during stressful experiences.
You can pursue high-quality connections by
Making an effort to be fully present in your interactions with others (e.g. by putting that phone out of sight)
Showing interest (e.g. by active listening and asking questions)
Being respectful and considerate of the other person's feelings
Offering help and support, and
I admit that this is a rather long list of practices. I certainly don't want to add to your pressure of having accomplished anything else during this crisis other than getting through it. A big believer in taking tiny steps, I invite you to regard this article as a positive psychology 'menu', pick one strategy, and try it out. My hope is to inspire you to proactively support and lead yourself, your loved ones, and your community through this pandemic.
"Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens."
Reference: Waters, L., Algoe, S. B., Dutton, J., Emmons, R., Fredrickson, B. L., Heaphy, E., . . . Steger, M. (2021). Positive psychology in a pandemic: buffering, bolstering, and building mental health. The journal of positive psychology(ahead of print), 1-21.