Self compassion during times of stress

There are times when we are highly aware that we are experiencing some kind of trauma or external stress that is impacting our health and wellbeing.

This performance fix offers a day-by-day plan to minimise the negative impact of stress on your mind. This will help to give you a strong foundation and enable you to better cope with whatever stressful situations are happening.

Reading time: 15 minutes

In recent years, much has been made of the idea of self-care; even extreme self care. Much of this has been focused on the beauty sector as well as a focus for health and wellbeing. But what of its effect on performance and if we are interested in high performance, what then? Self-compassion as a foundation for self care will help to put you in control, create the mindset and build resilience for times of high stress.

In the performance fix ‘stress and how to look after your body’, we took a dive into the physical effects of stress. But what of the psychological effects? When we go through periods of high stress, we can experience a whole range of symptoms such as: feeling overwhelmed, irritability, lack of focus or concentration, sleep problems (too much, or interrupted and not enough), excessive worry and constant rumination about the stressor, feeling anxious or confused, experiencing low mood, inability to make good decisions – or even any decisions at all!

If left alone, these symptoms will affect our long term physical and mental health and can lead to unhelpful coping mechanisms like over-eating, alcohol abuse and lack of exercise.

So, why self compassion and what does it mean?

We often find we have compassion for others when we see them suffer. We respond with kindness and a desire to care. When it comes to ourselves though, we are often less than compassionate and end up judging ourselves or behaving unkindly to our self. You may recognise some of the symptoms of stress from the list above and may well be able to recall chastising yourself for being unable to concentrate or telling yourself to ‘ pull yourself together ’?

The idea of self-compassion is to treat yourself as if you were your own best friend; to care about your own wellbeing and recovery. This is not just a ‘ nice to’ but is an essential skill to learn if you want to lead effectively in times of stress.

Through the practice of self compassion, you are more likely to:

  • Summon the resilience to thrive through difficult times
  • Feel optimistic, positive and curious

Dr Kristin Neff discusses the 3 elements of self-compassion:

  1. Kindness to self vs judgement
  2. Recognition that what you are going through is human and therefore entirely normal
  3. The ability to recognise painful emotion and then take a balanced approach. Mindfulness is the skill here.

A growth mindset is a helpful part of this process. The ability to see yourself as able to be flexible with your traits, strengths and weakness will be helpful. A good starting point is to check your current foundation level and be curious about how you could improve it.

5 Day Plan

Day 1 – Let’s calibrate.

1. Make a note of any of these symptoms you’ve been experiencing over the last week; especially if you are going through a high stress period. Tick those that apply:

  • Feeling lethargic
  • Unable to concentrate or focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed d. Irritable
  • Sleep problems
  • Excessive worry and/or rumination about the stressor
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling confused
  • Low mood
  • Unable to make decisions
  • Any other psychological symptoms

2. Give yourself a score between 1 and 10, with 1 being no symptoms at all and feeling completely chilled and relaxed and 10 being off the scale with daily experience of many of the stress symptoms.

For now and for this exercise, focus purely on your psychological symptoms. The aim is to become really aware of YOUR response to stress.

Day 2

  1. Take time today to notice how you are feeling. Try neutral noticing; that is, notice without judgement. Put words to how you are feeling without suppressing the emotion or the feelings. Becoming aware of exactly what you feel without judgement is the gateway to self compassion and self care.
  2. Through neutral noticing, you might start to see that what you are feeling and experiencing is a normal response to stress.

Part of common humanity and that as a human being, those experiences are to be expected.

Day 3

As you continue to notice and be more aware of your stress response, take time today to imagine that it was not you, but your best friend who was experiencing this.

  • What advice would you give them?
  • How would you speak to them?
  • What might you say to help soothe their suffering?
  • How might you listen?
  • Imagine the conversation and notice the tone with which you speak to them and the words you use.
  • How do you feel towards that person?

Now have the same imaginary conversation, but use your name instead of your friend’s.

Actually imagine the same words but directed at yourself. This may feel strange at first, but in order to change the habit of speaking to yourself with a harsh or judgemental tone, as so many people do, it is important to consciously change the language until a new habit is created.

Day 4

  • Make a list of things you are worried or concerned about.
  • Now cross out those that you have absolutely no control over.
  • Of those that are left, start to write what you could do about them.
  • Now decide when you will do the first thing. The first thing might address the thing that worries you the most.

Day 5

Now that we’ve dealt with the worries as much as we can, make a new list. This one is all about things you can do to reduce your stress levels in the current climate and how you will take care of yourself through it.

It is important that you write your own plan, as different things work for different people. This is all about getting to know yourself to enable you to build up resilience for high stress or high pressure times.

Your list might include things like:

  • When I ruminate or start to dwell on worries (especially those I have no control over), distract myself by reading a fictional book or watching a film – make helpful choices here!
  • Phone a friend! Make sure I regularly spend time with people who matter to me; not only to discuss worries and concerns but sometimes just to cheer myself up!
  • Take time out to breathe – I notice that when I am stressed, I am not breathing and that makes things worse
  • Regularly check in with how I’m feeling. Make sure I don’t judge! Neutral noticing frequently
  • Make time to slow down and meditate – especially when I feel I don’t have time!
  • Make sure I take time out on a weekly basis just for me. Whether it’s getting out on my bike for an hour or taking a long soak in the bath.

Day 6 and onwards…

  1. Consider a regular practice of mindfulness and/or meditation. This will help with increasing self awareness and the ability to take a balanced view of emotions.
  2. To increase the feeling of common humanity and the ability to apply it to whatever you are experiencing, think about how you could connect with people and who it would be useful to connect with.
  3. If you are going through turbulent or challenging times, it can be helpful to think about what stays the same that you can still enjoy and also what is different that you could make work for you.