Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK

Many people sighed with relief at the economic countermeasures announced by the Treasury when Covid-19 finally got real. What caught the nation’s attention were the closing words of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s address: “Now, more than at any time in our history, we will be judged by our capacity for compassion. Our ability to come through this won’t just be down to what the government or businesses do, but by the individual acts of kindness that we show each other.”

Messages from the Prime Minister such as ‘Stay at Home’, ‘Save Lives’, ‘Social distancing’ and ‘Self-isolation’ affected us at a deep neurological level. Way down in the feeling centre of our brains is the amygdala. Its one job is fight-or-flight: the process that alerts us to threats and the need for self-preservation. Its downfall is its original design intent to protect us from predators. Therefore it has only two settings: tiger/no tiger. When we sense our environment shift away from comfortable norms, the amygdala goes full tiger. It floods our bloodstream with stress chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol, raising the pulse, shortening breath, prioritising blood flow to the major muscle groups. This is great for running and fighting, not so brilliant for thinking and resilience.

We might view the behaviours that result from this auto-response as being driven by an inner primate who is far less rational than our human side, like panic buying and stock-piling when the Government reassures people that essential supply lines are safe or going out to enjoy ourselves when we are advised to stay home, travel less and maintain distance from others. 

Compassion literally means to ‘suffer with’ and in modern usage typically includes the intent to relieve the pain of others. The need for compassion is rarely so profound as it is now. People the world over are experiencing pain of one sort or another. Some are trying as hard as they can to keep businesses running in the most challenging circumstances. Others are coping with the realities of company closures and what that means for their future.

All of this is happening to people who are confined to their homes where additional worries are unfolding: the wellbeing of close family and friends who we are restricted from visiting; the meeting of financial obligations with little or no income; the need to home-school children and the search for basic provisions.

As the latest science shows us, simply choosing to understand and care for another person, to take actions for the benefit of their wellbeing, is enough to activate a physiological response that runs counter to fight-or-flight. The arousal of compassion switches a circuit in our brains that releases the cuddle chemicals oxytocin and vasopressin, reducing blood pressure, increasing immune system functioning and producing feelings of hope and optimism.

Compassion is innate in all of us and it’s easier to act on than you might think. Here are a couple of tips to get you started.

Tip 1: Clear your own mind

We are all susceptible to thinking and behaving irrationally. Having compassion for others starts with compassion for ourselves. Identify whom you trust and can turn to for sharing your own sources of suffering. Favour people who will listen without judgement (see Tip 2).

In times like these, when people you need may be out of reach, try cathartic writing. Wake up, get up, sit down and write. Keep going until you hit three full pages of blather. If you get stuck, as you will, write about being stuck until the next wave of thought occurs; and it will. Never judge the content or quality of the writing. Just close the book and get on with your day. This is guaranteed to make the mental load feel lighter. If you persist for several days or weeks, you will almost certainly notice an improved capacity for managing your own mood. This will create the space you need to be there for others.

Tip 2: Listen without judgement

How often do you listen deeply to someone else? That means being fully present, focused on their words and mannerisms, suspending your own judgement and pushing aside your thoughts; not planning what you want to say next. It’s listening to understand, not to give advice. How often do you do that? Whatever your answer, do it more. Try this to get you started:

This alone will be enough to help most people see and feel more clearly.

For further information

Surviving the Coronavirus Lockdown and Social Isolation is a guide to creating a new normal in a changing world. Download a copy of the ebook for free now.

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