Are you Compassion Fit?

by Dr Chris Irons, Director, Balanced Minds

Have you ever worked out? Or maybe spent time going for a run or swim? Although it’s not always easy (or fun!) to do, we all know that doing physical exercise is good for us. In fact, if you’re able to regularly engage in some type of exercise we know this is has a robust, positive effect on your body, lowering blood pressure, strengthening bones and muscles as well as reducing body weight. But have you ever thought that compassion is similar to working out at the gym? 

If not, let me explain.

There’s now a huge amount of research showing that when you practice certain compassion exercises – like the ones we have on our website – that this leads to a variety of benefits. For example, research that I was involved with showed that just four weeks of self-compassion practice was associated with significant reductions in feelings of shame, self-criticism, stress, anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as an increase in wellbeing. And similar to doing physical fitness, colleagues of mine have also found that some of the practices common in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) are also associated with beneficial hanges inside your body in part by influencing your parasympathetic nervous system (for an example, see here)

The Muscle of Self-Compassion

However, it turns out that it’s not just these types of things that link compassion practice with the benefits of going to the gym. For example, if you do go to the gym or run regularly, not only do you get the associated physical health benefits, but you can also use these when you need to. Imagine that you’re going to catch a train to see a friend or family member, but on route to the train station there’s a traffic jam, and you get to the train station with two minutes to spare before the train leaves. If you’ve been doing physical exercise regularly it’s likely that you’re able to run at a consistent pace for two minutes and make it just before the train leaves! But if you haven’t been doing exercise regularly, you might start off running like an Olympic champion, but quite quickly you’ll have to stop and catch your breath, and end up missing the train.
Compassion Fit, Compassion Work Out
compassionate acts

It turns our compassion practice is similar. In a study by Marcela Matos and colleagues, they found that people who did regular compassion practice experienced a variety of psychological benefits, but it was those who used these practices – and more broadly, their compassionate mind – when something tricky or distressing happened in life, who benefited the most.

So when it comes to practicing your compassionate mind, it’s not just about sitting and listening to an audio practice or meditation – it’s then trying to put this compassion muscle to work when you most need it – when you’re in distress. 

Using your Compassion Fitness

Given these ideas, it’s useful to try and remember that when you’re a bit ambivalent about doing some self-compassion practice, doing the practice today is helping a future version of you who’s having a hard time. But it’s more than this; even if you don’t feel compassion-fit yet, doing small things to be helpful and supportive to yourselves or others when distress turns up, is the equivalent to lifting a weight or doing a short workout. Overtime, these actions will help to build your compassionate mind and body.

Dr Chris Irons, Director, Balanced Minds

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