Compassion and mental wellbeing
The most exciting new developments in psychotherapy at the moment are a fusion between three approaches: cognitive therapy, neuroscience and Buddhist psychology. Cognitive therapy is the most effective form of 'talking therapy' for a whole host of problems, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and phobias. Neuroscience has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, mainly because of MRI scans of the brain, which show us which parts of the brain 'light up' when, say, we get angry or excited. And Buddhist psychology – a 2,500-year-old discipline for training the mind and freeing us from suffering – is increasingly being incorporated into Western approaches to psychotherapy.
The Buddha said the two core concepts in his teaching were mindfulness and compassion. I have said plenty about mindfulness on other areas of the site, but I increasingly realise the importance of compassion and teach my clients to be kinder and more compassionate to themselves. To explain just why compassion is so important for mental wellbeing, I need to explain a little about how the brain works. There are three affect-regulation systems in the brain (affect just means emotion, so these three systems control how we feel):
The threat-protection system is, as the name suggests, all about protecting us from danger. It's linked to the fight-or-flight response and reacts in split seconds if it senses a threat, causing a ripple of strong emotion that acts as an alarm and motivates us to act. So anger (fight) and anxiety (flight) are triggered by this system when we face both genuine threats, like a gang of hoodies or speeding bus hurtling towards us; or 'psychosocial' threats like a dressing down from our boss or warning letter from the bank.
The drive-excitement system helps us achieve and get things we want, so it's linked to ambition, success, starting exciting projects or conquering our nerves to ask someone out on a first date. It's largely helpful, but can cause problems if we get blocked or thwarted – this leads to anger and frustration because we are too determined to get what we want out of life.
And the soothing-contentment system is all about calmness, peacefulness, contentment, feeling safe and secure. It's a counter-balance to the threat-protection system, calming us down after the threat has passed and making us feel relaxed and at ease. It's also the system that both activates and responds to kind and compassionate thoughts, feelings and fantasies.
So, what does all that mean for you? Well, if you suffer from chronic stress, anxiety or depression; if you are prone to harsh self-criticism or self-blame; if you feel angry and dissatisfied much of the time, your threat-protection system is over-stimulated and your soothing-contentment system needs strengthening. None of these systems are good or bad – they all have an important function in keeping us alive, in helping us achieve our goals and making us feel loved, safe and secure. The trouble starts when they get out of balance, so an important part of therapy is helping you develop more kindness and compassion to yourself and turning down the volume on that loud, harsh, self-critical voice that finds fault with everything you do.
If you want to know more about why compassion is so important, or about compassion-focused therapy, read Paul Gilbert's The Compassionate Mind or Overcoming Depression: A Self-help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioral Techniques, both wonderful books; you could also read Happiness: A Guide to Deveoping Life's Most Important Skill, a life-changing book by scientist/Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard; or Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, by meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. And visit Paul Gilbert's Compassionate Mind Foundation's website for details of workshops and talks.
You might also like to try this simple guided imagery exercise, which aims to strengthen your compassionate self. Finally, remember that it may be quite hard to feel kindness or compassion towards yourself, especially at first. But through those MRI scans we know that simply trying to create those feelings activates the soothing-contentment system, which is a small but powerful first step on the road to feeling stronger, happier and more at peace.