Depression, Loneliness and the Loss of Connection to Other People

In my previous post, I discussed the loss of connection to meaningful work as one social factor impacting the rise of depression and anxiety.  Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression, found through his research, and that of his colleagues, that another major contributor to depression is the growing disconnection from other people being experienced in Western societies today.  This disconnection from others has led to an epidemic of loneliness in Britain, America and Australia.  The U.K. Government, in recognition of this growing social problem, has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.

Social change and the rise of loneliness

Robert Putnam, through research over more than 25 years covering almost 500,00 interviewees, provided evidence that people are becoming increasing disconnected from family, social groups, the wider community and neighbours.  The title of his landmark book incorporating this social research, Bowling Alone, captures the essence of his findings – people are now bowling on their own in a dedicated lane instead of bowling in a group as was the practice previously.  The level of volunteering has dropped dramatically as has active participation in what Robert terms “democratic structures”.

Johann suggests that this increasing tendency to “go it alone” is compounded by the often-repeated advice that change begins with you and that no one can help you but yourself – you have to fix yourself unaided.  He points out that this advice is contrary to the history of humanity which evidences our tribal nature and co-dependence.  Our forebears had to cooperate to survive – going it alone led to extinction.

The physical health costs of loneliness

Johann draws on the results of a range of research projects to demonstrate that loneliness dramatically increases the risk of catching infection and of dying from a serious health problem such as heart attack or cancer (risks like those of a person who is obese). The research highlights the fact that loneliness leads to an increased heart rate and production of stress-related cortisol (similar to what happens when a person is attacked physically).

The link between loneliness and depression

In his Lost Connections book, Johann draws heavily on the extensive research conducted by John Cacioppo into the link between depression and loneliness and the essential nature of the experience of loneliness.  John established that loneliness preceded the emergence of depressive symptoms in one of his many studies.  In another study he found that people who revisited a period of intense loneliness became “radically more depressed”, whereas people who recaptured a period of real connection to another person became “radically less depressed”.

These findings led John to ask the question, “What is loneliness?”  He established several key points through this basic inquiry:

  • loneliness is not the same as “being alone” – you can be alone and live alone and not feel lonely or depressed
  • you can feel lonely in a crowded place or even within your own family – the presence alone of others does not ward off a sense of loneliness
  • loneliness arises in the absence of connection with someone or a group of people with whom you can readily share experiences of joy or distress.

John argues that people need a “two-way” relationship where things that matter are shared for mutual benefit – the sharing needs to be “meaningful” for both people. He suggests that this element of exchange and mutual assistance is the “missing ingredient” needed to overcome loneliness.

Sarah Silverman (comedian, actor, singer and writer) in conversation with Amanda De Cadenet described her own experience of depression as “desperately homesick but home”. Being at home physically does not guarantee protection against depression – from feeling sad, anxious and negative; experiencing low self-esteem; and being fearful that people will dislike you. Johann suggests that Sarah’s allusion to “homesickness at home” highlights the fact that our conception of “home” has “shrivelled” from our sense of community as “home” to the four walls of our house.

The “snowball effect” of loneliness

Sarah, in her interview, also makes the point that self-deprecation, which is the hallmark of a lot of stand-up comedy, has its downside in that it leads to actual self-deprecation and depression, which becomes self-obsessive, shutting out other people. She argues that “if you can be okay with yourself, you can have a lot more room to have other people in your life”. If you feel lonely and depressed you will have low self-esteem and avoid social contact – leading to a “snowball effect” compounding your loneliness.

Johann discusses the “snowball effect” of loneliness in terms of both perception of threat and accelerated response time to potential threat. People who are lonely tend to exhibit “micro-awakenings”, a trait common amongst people who are anxious because they don’t feel protected when asleep. This state of “hypervigilance” leads to the perception of threat even when it does not exist (or experience of a slight when none is intended). The research quoted by Johann shows too that people who are experiencing loneliness tend to react twice as quickly to perceived threat as those who are not lonely.

Breaking out of loneliness

Johann argues that people experiencing loneliness are forever scanning their environment for threats because they do not feel as if anyone is looking after them – they perceive that no one “has their back”. He maintains that what they need is more love and kindness together with reassurance.

Dr. Hilarie Cash, who has extensively researched addiction to gaming and the internet, maintains that these addictions are often an attempt to escape from the sense of loneliness. She argues that what is needed is “connection with one another in a safe, caring way” – a face-to-face connection not a remote, superficial interaction mediated by a screen.

In a brief video about overcoming isolation, John Cacioppo explains how people have successfully overcome extreme isolation and loneliness. He maintains that breaking out of loneliness requires a change in cognition (the way we think about ourselves and others) as well as approaching others “in a way that is positive, in a way that is engaging and that is mutually enjoyable”.

How mindfulness can help to overcome loneliness and depression

One of the first thoughts that comes to mind is that meditation can assist us to overcome feelings of hurt and resentment. It can help us to find ways of forgiving ourselves and others. Through mindfulness practices, we can achieve calm, clarity and self-regulation (of our thoughts, emotions and actions).

Mindfulness can help us savour what we have – our work, our children, our friendships and the present moment. It can help us to slow down and express genuine gratitude which generates positive energy and builds relationships. Overall, mindfulness can help us to cultivate awareness of others, overcome self-absorption and engage in “compassion in action“. As we grow in mindfulness, we can move beyond loneliness and depression, learn to value ourselves, appreciate the present moment and reach out to others through reflective listening and compassionate action.

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Image by dima_goroziya from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Carers Need Self-Care

Much of the focus in the resources on mindfulness is on ways to help people who are suffering from conditions that are debilitating such as mental illness or chronic pain.  Very little of the resources focus on ways to help carers in their role – ways to manage the physical and psychological toll of caring for someone else on a constant and extended basis.  Carers are the overlooked group – forgotten by others and themselves.

Carers: people who care and support others

Carers come in all shapes and sizes  – adults looking after ageing parents who may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; siblings caring for a family member who has a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, anxiety or depression; or anyone caring for someone suffering from a physical condition such as paraplegia, chronic pain or cancer.  According to Carers Australia, carers are people who provide unpaid care and support to family members and friends who have a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness, an alcohol or other drug issue or who are frail aged.

The toll of caring

The “burden of care” can be felt both physically and psychologically.  The physical toll for carers can be excessive – they can become exhausted and/or accident-prone, suffer from sleep disorders or experience bodily symptoms of stress such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue or related conditions like fibromyalgia. The physical toll of caring can be experienced as cumulative stress and lead to chronic conditions that adversely affect the carer’s long-term health.

The psychological toll of caring can also be cumulative in nature and extremely variable in its impact.  Carers can experience negative emotions such as resentment or anger, despite their compassion towards the person who is being cared for.  They can become extremely frustrated over the paucity of time available for themselves, the opportunity cost in terms of inability to travel or to be away for any length of time, the lack of freedom (feeling tied down), the lack of improvement in the condition of the person being cared for or the financial impost of caring (preventing desired savings/purchases or home improvements). 

Carers do not have inexhaustible personal resources – physical, psychological and financial.  They can suffer from compassion fatigue which can be hastened by emotional contagion resulting from close observation of, and identification with, the pain of a loved one.  Hence, carers can experience depression, anxiety or grief – reflecting the emotional state of their loved ones who are suffering.

The toll on carers has been the subject of extensive research.  For example, Emma Stein studied the psychological impact on older female carers engaged in informal aged care.  Sally Savage and Susan Bailey reviewed the literature on the mental health impact on the carer of their caregiving role and found that the impact was highly variable and moderated by factors such as the relationship between caregiver and receiver and the level of social support for the carer.

Being mindful of your needs as a carer

The fundamental problem is that carers become so other-focused that they overlook their own needs – their need for rest, time away, relaxation and enjoyment.  Normal needs can become intensified by the burden of care and the associated physical and psychological stressors.  Carers tend to neglect their own needs in the service of others.  However, in the process, they endanger their own mental and physical health and, potentially, inhibit their capacity to sustain quality care.

Carers can inform themselves of the inherent physical and psychological consequences of being a caregiver, particularly if this involves intensive, long-term caring of a close loved one (where feelings are heightened, and the personal costs intensified).  Mental Health Carers Australia highlights the fact that people who care for someone with a mental health illness are increasingly at risk of “developing a mental illness themselves”.

Self-care for the carer

One of the more effective ways that carers can look after themselves is to draw on support networks – whether they involve family, colleagues or friends; broad social networks; or specific networks designed for carers.  Arafmi, for example, provides carer support for caregivers of people with a mental illness and their services include a 24-hour carer helpline, carers forum, blog, educational resources, workshops and carer support groups. Carers Queensland provides broader-based carer resources and support groups.

Carers tend to go it alone, not wanting to burden others with “their” problem(s).  They are inclined to refuse help from others when it is offered because of embarrassment, fear of dependency, concern for the other person offering help, inability to “let go” or any other inhibiting emotion or thought pattern – in the process, they may stop themselves from sharing the load.

Carers could seek professional help from qualified professionals such as medical doctors or psychologists if they notice that they are experiencing physical or psychological symptoms resulting from carer stress.

Mindfulness for carers

Carers can use mindfulness practices, reflection and meditation to help them cope with the physical and emotional stresses of caregiving.  Specific meditations can address negative feelings, especially those of resentment and the associated guilt.  Mindfulness practices can introduce processes that enable the carer to wind down and relax – such as mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating or using awareness as the default when caught up with “waiting” (a constant companion of the carer role).

Carers can employ techniques such as body scan to relax their bodies and release physical tension.  Deep, conscious breathing can also help in times of intense stress such as when experiencing panic. For people who are religious, prayer can help to provide calm and hope.

Dr. Chris Walsh (mindfulness.org.au), offers a simple mindfulness exercise for self-care by carers in his website article, Caring for CarersThe exercise involves focusing, re-centering, imagining and noticing (thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations).

As carers grow in mindfulness, they can become more aware of the stress they are under and the physical and psychological toll involved. This growing awareness can lead to effective self-care through social and professional support and meditation and/or mindfulness practices. Mindfulness can help carers develop resilience and calmness in the face of their stressful caregiver role.

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Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Facing Up to Vulnerability

I am not a Buddhist.  However, I readily acknowledge that in the area of mindfulness I can learn from the oral tradition of the Buddha that has been passed down over more than 2,500 years through teachings and stories.  Tara Brach, practising Buddhist and international mindfulness teacher, shares one such story related to vulnerability, “I See You, Mara”.   Tara recounts that the Buddha when travelling and teaching often encountered a sense of vulnerability experienced as “fear of loss or rejection”.  His way to manage this fear was to name it and face it – he called the fear Mara (“the god of darkness”).  So, whenever he encountered such fear and sense of being vulnerable, he would say, “I See You, Mara”.

Facing up to vulnerability and naming our feelings

There are times when we feel intuitively that we should do something that would be helpful to others, but we become fearful and give into our sense of vulnerability.  For the Buddha, “Mara” epitomised this fear and vulnerability.  We could find our own name for this darkness that can overwhelm us and impede our ability to be intimate, creative or compassionate.  Whatever way we choose, the basic process involves naming our feelings when we feel blocked by a sense of vulnerability.  In this way, we can tame our feelings, draw on our strengths and reduce the inhibiting influence of feeling vulnerable

In a previous post, I discussed the genesis of our sense of vulnerability and offered a short meditation that Tara teaches to help us to open to our vulnerability in our everyday life.  However, we may be faced with a specific challenge represented by an opportunity to do something worthwhile for others and, despite the value of the proposed action, we find ourselves procrastinating out of fear of some adverse outcome.  On these occasions, we can face up to our procrastination self-stories and bring them above-the-line.

What can be helpful, too, is to explore whether there is an underlying adverse event (or series of events) that gave rise to our personal sense of vulnerability.  Have we experienced an occasion when we were deeply embarrassed, totally rejected or attacked for our ideas or efforts?  How is such an event playing out in our lives now?  In this reflection, we can relate our sense of vulnerability to its origins and our deeply held belief (however false), that a similar outcome will be experienced again if we challenge the “status quo” or advance ideas that are different to mainstream thinking.  This deeply held belief about adverse outcomes can immobilise us if it remains hidden and not exposed to the light of observation and reflection.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of the impact of our past experience on our sense of vulnerability, begin to name our underlying feelings and access ways to face up to being vulnerable.  In this way, we can progressively release our capacity for intimacy, creativity and compassionate action.

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Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How To View Stress to Improve Health and Happiness

Kelly McGonigal presented a talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend that challenged the way we think about stress and the bodily response to stress. Her talk could have been subtitled, How to think about stress to improve your longevity. Kelly draws on research that demonstrates how we think about stress can impact negatively or positively on our physical and mental health during the experience of stress and beyond.

How we can view our bodily responses to stress

When we experience stress our bodies respond in predictable ways. Our heart may be racing or pounding, we tend to breathe faster, and we can break out into a sweat. How we view these bodily responses to stress determines the short-term and long-term effects of stress on our wellness, heart condition and longevity.

If we view these bodily responses as a positive response to stress, we are better able to cope with the current stress and future stressors. Kelly argues that our perception of these responses makes all the difference. We can view them as an indication that our body is preparing us and energising us for the perceived challenge that precipitated our stress. World-famous aerialist Nik Wallenda maintains that this positive perception of the bodily stress response enabled him to walk on a tightrope across a 400 metre gap in the Grand Canyon.

Kelly argues that we should view the pounding heart as readying us for constructive action; the heightened breathing rate is providing more oxygen to the brain to enable it to function better. The net result of viewing these bodily responses as positive is that we can experience less anxiety in the face of stress and feel more confident in meeting the inherent challenges.

Kelly points out that what is particularly amazing is that instead of the blood vessels in your heart constricting (as they do when you view stress negatively), the blood vessels actually remain relaxed when the bodily stress response is viewed positively. She notes that the relaxation of the blood vessels in the heart is similar to what happens when we experience positive emotions of joy and courage.

Stress makes you more social

One of the key effects of stress is that the pituitary gland in your body increases your level of oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone“) which tends to move you to strengthen close social relationships. This facet of the stress response prompts you to seek and give social support. Kelly maintains that your stress response “wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you”. It also stimulates you to reach out and help others in need – which, in turn, can increase your oxytocin levels. Thus stress can help us to accept compassion make us more compassionate.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation, research and reflection, we can learn to view our bodily response to stress in a positive light, reduce the negative physical and mental impacts of stress on ourselves and strengthen our commitment to compassionate action.

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Image: Sunrise in Manly, Queensland, taken on 1 July 2019

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Introducing Compassion into Leadership Development

In the previous post, I discussed the approach of YMCA of USA on how to build mindfulness into leadership development. The principles and strategies for the implementation of this change revolved around a core tenet of patience – moving gradually to insert mindfulness into existing leadership development programs. Wendy Saunders who has focused on compassion for many years identified the cultivation of compassion in the organisation as a more complex change process with some different challenges. This is despite the fact that YMCA is focused on compassionate action within the community and is totally dedicated to diversity and inclusion.

Most organisations today recognise the need for diversity and inclusion. While much progress has been achieved in creating diversity in workplaces, the real challenge has been translating that into compassionate action through conscious inclusion strategies and actions. YMCA of USA recognises that the nature of their organisation’s focus and their worldwide reach makes diversity and inclusion paramount. Their strong commitment in the area is reflected in conscious inclusion practices, including having a “supplier diversity program”.

What are the challenges in embedding compassion into leadership development?

Despite the focus of the YMCA of USA on compassionate action (as the reason for its existence), Wendy found that there were real challenges to integrating compassion into leadership development in the organisation:

  • some staff believed that there was no place for compassion in the workplace – a strong task and outcomes focus challenged the desirability of compassion (a people-focused activity). Resource constraints and the ever-increasing need for YMCA services would cement this belief.
  • others experienced “cognitive dissonance” resulting from what they perceived as decisions and actions by the organisation that were lacking in compassion, e.g. laying off staff.

The concept of compassionate love, the title of Wendy’s personal website, is often viewed as “touchy feely” – an arena where feelings and emotions are more openly expressed to the discomfort of others. Feelings and emotions are often suppressed in the workplace and people have real difficulty openly discussing them – particularly, not wanting to be seen as “soft”. However, the reality is that it takes real courage to show compassion.

Introducing compassion into leadership development

Wendy suggests that, given the nature of the challenges to embedding compassion into leadership development, a central strategy has to be introducing compassion through “conversation and dialogue”. She indicated that at a YMCA retreat attended by 400 people, most people expressed the desire for “more compassion in the workplace”.

Besides making compassion a part of the conversation and dialogue, other strategies include storytelling (making people aware of compassionate action taken by others), discussing the benefits of compassion and the neuroscience supporting it and helping leaders to be aware of the ways to model compassion in the workplace, such as:

  • the way they “see and treat” people in the workplace – overcoming basic attribution errors, including where they judge themselves by their intentions and others by their actions. Associated with this is the need to avoid ascribing a negative label to a person because of a single act or omission on their part
  • being aware of the suffering of others and taking action to redress the suffering e.g. constructive action to support someone experiencing a mental health issue, taking action to overcome a toxic work environment or being ready to explore the factors (external and internal) that may be affecting the work performance of a staff member
  • actively working on addressing their own “unconscious bias” and blind spots that potentially result in decisions that unknowingly cause unnecessary suffering for others
  • providing opportunities to practice compassion meditation and group activities to support meditation practices.

Resourcing compassion in the workplace

Wendy stressed the need to provide resources on compassion to help build the knowledge base of the leaders in the organisation and to engender a commitment beyond a single individual such as the CEO (who can change frequently). Resources include courses, books, videos, podcasts, research articles and presentations/workshops by experts in compassion. She recommended books such as The Mind of the Leader and Awakening Compassion at Work and highlighted the resources on compassion available on her own website.

Wendy also recommends a course that she participated in that really stimulated her longstanding interest in compassion – CBCT (Cognitively-Based Compassion Training) conducted by Emory University. She is continuing her own studies by completing an Executive Masters in Positive Leadership and Strategy. Her thesis will address approaches to compassionate reorganisation and the evidence in terms of positive outcomes for individuals and the organisations involved.

As leaders grow in mindfulness through integration of mindfulness into leadership development, they will be developing the awareness that provides the impetus for compassion. Providing specific strategies to engender compassion in the workplace, such as introducing and supporting compassion meditation, will enable leaders to model compassionate action for others.

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Image by TheDigitalArtist from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Can Your Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Understanding the Science of Compassion

In her presentation on The Science of Compassion during the Mindful Healthcare Summit, Kelly McGonigal highlighted the body-mind impact of compassion and compassion training. Over the past 10 years she has worked with the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in the capacities of researcher and educator. Kelly was a co-author of the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training [CCT] and has undertaken research into its impacts on mind and body.

The mind-body effects of compassion training

The research undertaken by Kelly and her colleagues highlights the effects of compassion training on the mind and body. Kelly summarised these effects as follows:

  1. The process of compassion starts in the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, which registers a form of “sympathetic stress”, experienced by the observing individual as sadness or suffering. At this stage a person can become overwhelmed, particularly where they become too identified with the person who they perceive as suffering in some way, e.g. through grief, chronic physical illness, relationship breakdown or mental illness. The person who is experiencing overwhelm may adopt flight behaviour by distancing themselves (mentally and/or physically).
  2. The next stage involves the pre-frontal cortex and other parts of the “midline structure of the brain”. Here the sympathetic sufferer, through a process of “social cognition”, can separate themselves from the perceived sufferer. They recognise the suffering of the “other” and understand that they have a relationship to that person (as part of humanity) but are quite distinct from that other person – they don’t take the suffering on-board or “own the suffering” of the other person. This ability to achieve separation mentally is critical for the balance and welfare of the observer and is foundational to their willingness and ability to act to relieve the suffering of others. Without this balance, the observer may experience what Richard Davidson described as “empathy fatigue”.
  3. When we actually take compassionate action to relieve the suffering of another, we experience the “reward system” – our brain releases dopamine which make us feel good, hopeful and courageous. It thus serves to strengthen our motivation to redress the suffering of others. It activates “the approach motivation system of the brain” – motivating us to act on environments that we experience as unjust or toxic.

As we grow in mindfulness through compassion meditation and compassion training, and take action to redress the suffering of others, we can experience an increasing capacity for compassionate action and strengthening motivation to act on unjust or toxic environments.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Compassion: Exploring “Where Does it Hurt?”

Tara Brach in presenting during the encore of the Mindful Leadership Summit, discussed the nature of compassion and how to develop it through mindfulness.  Tara’s talk was titled, “Radical Compassion: Awakening Our Naturally Wise & Loving Hearts“.  She highlighted the fact that our limbic system (emotional part of our brain) often blocks our compassion.  She offered a short meditation to help us to get in touch with understanding ourselves and to free up our “naturally loving” and compassionate heart.

Perpetuating the “Unreal Other”

Tara spoke about our tendency, and her own, to negatively impact close relationships through treating the other person as an “unreal other”.  This involves being blind to their existence and needs because of our pursuit of our own needs for reassurance, confirmation of our own worth, sense of power and control or many other emotional needs that arise from our desire to protect our self-esteem.   This preoccupation with fulfilling our own needs leads to judging others, instead of showing compassion towards them.

At the same time, we are captured by the “shoulds” that play out in our minds through social conditioning.   The “shoulds” tell us what we should do or look like, how to behave or what to say.  These mental messages perpetuate self-judgment which, in turn, blocks our sensitivity to the needs of others and our compassionate action.  Mindfulness can help us to get in touch with this constant negative self-evaluation and open the way for our compassionate action.

The difference between compassion and empathy

Tara pointed out that compassion arises out of mindfulness, whereas empathy engages our limbic (emotional) system.  Too much empathy can lead to burnout, resulting from taking on the pain and suffering of others.  She points out that neuroscience demonstrates that compassion and empathy light up different parts of the brain.  Compassion engages the neo-cortex and is linked to our motor system – compassion is about understanding another’s pain and taking action to redress it.  Empathy is another form of “resonance” but it results in immersion in another’s pain.

A short meditation: “Where does it hurt?”

Tara offered a brief meditation to help us to get in touch with how the limbic system sabotages our compassion.  The meditation begins with recalling an interaction that upset us or made us angry.  Once we have this firmly in our recollection, we can then explore what was going on for us. What made us angry and what does this say about our response?  What emotions were at play for us?  Were we experiencing fear, shame, disappointment or some other emotion?  What deeply-felt, but hidden need drove this emotion?  If we can get in touch with this emotion and the need underlying it, we are better placed to be open to compassion.

Once we can get in touch with our own needs and how they play out in our interactions, we can begin to understand that similar needs and reactions are playing out for those we interact with.  Tara points out that we all have “a foot caught in a trap”.  For some, it may be the weight of expectations or anxiety over doing the right thing; for others, it may be grief over a recent loss or the pain and stigma of sexual abuse.  Once we move beyond self-absorption, we can recognise the pain of others and extend a helping, compassionate hand.   We can ask them, “Where does it hurt?, and we can be more sensitive to their response because we have explored our own personal hurts.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can better understand ourselves, our needs and the hidden drivers of our emotions and responses in interactions with others.  This will pave the way for us to be open to compassionate action towards others, including those who are close to us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of eliola on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Recognition of the Signs of Mental Illness and How to Intervene

In the previous post, I discussed being mindful of mental health in the workplace.  This involves not only awareness and being present to staff and colleagues, but also being able to recognise the early warning signs of mental illness and having the courage and competence to intervene.

The early warning signs of mental illness in the workplace

Recognition of the early warning signs of mental illness enables early intervention to prevent deterioration in a person’s mental health.  Without such an intervention, issues can build up for the individual, making it more difficult for them to manage their stress and/or stressors.

The Mentally Healthy Workplaces Toolkit introduced in the earlier post provides a list of possible early warning signs of mental illness and lists them under five categories:

  1. Physical – such as constant tiredness, continuous ill health, major changes in appearance and/or weight, complaints about ongoing health concerns
  2. Emotional – such as irritability, loss of a sense of humour or of confidence, increased cynicism, nervousness, overly sensitive to perceived or real criticism
  3. Cognitive – overall performance decline through lots of mistakes, lack of concentration and/or inability to make decisions (constant procrastinating)
  4. Behavioural – behaving out of character by becoming more introverted or extroverted, withdrawing from group activities, lateness to work, not taking scheduled breaks (such as lunches) but taking unofficial time off
  5. In the business – inability to meet deadlines, declining motivation, frequent absences, working long hours unproductively.

There may be multiple causes for one or more of these early signs to occur.  So, it becomes important to check in with the person involved as to how they are going and whether you can be of assistance.

Checking in – having the conversation

Often managers and colleagues are reluctant to say anything to the person showing early sings of mental illness and the person involved is often unwilling to raise the issue for fear of being seen as “not coping” or “being weak”.  Part of the problem is that they really need support and care and genuine concern for their welfare.  They can be experiencing a strong sense of isolation, lack of support and associated depression.  Extending a helping hand can often work wonders.   But how do you start the conversation?

People in the workplace are very ready to ask someone about a physical injury such as a broken wrist but when it comes to a mental illness they are often fearful or uncertain – yet the person with the early signs really needs someone to show care and concern.  So, we can have a situation where the two parties – the manager/colleague and the person experiencing mental illness – are compounding the problem by not engaging in the conversation- a form of mutual withdrawal.

The recognised format for the initial conversation where someone is displaying the early signs of mental illness is called AYOK – “Are you okay?” The Mentally Healthy Workplaces Toolkit offers four steps for starting the conversation:

  1. Ask R U OK?
  2. Listen without judgment
  3. Encourage action
  4. Check in

It is useful to preface this conversation with the observation, “I have noticed that…and I am concerned for your welfare.”  In other words, communicate what you have observed (shows you are interested in the person) and express care and concern.

The person involved may be unwilling to talk initially but it is important to undertake the occasional check-in.  An experienced practitioner at the 19th International Mental Health Conference mentioned that on one occasion he had the initial AYOK conversation and the person involved said they were okay…and yet, some months later they came up to the practitioner and said, “I’m not okay, my daughter committed suicide three months ago – can you help me?”  Having had the initial conversation opened the way for the subsequent voluntary disclosure.  To avoid the conversation compounds the sense of isolation of the individual involved – they feel that they can’t help themselves and that no one else is willing to help them.

It is important to prepare for the conversation beforehand – know what you are going to say, allow time for the interaction and choose an appropriate time and place.  You need to ensure that you are prepared to listen and be mindful during the conversation.

You can provide support by suggesting they use the Employee Assistance Program, visit their doctor (who can initiate a formal Mental Health Care Plan) or discuss options for making reasonable adjustments to their work situation.  The important thing is that you take compassionate action, not letting the situation deteriorate.

It is vitally important to maintain confidentiality about any information disclosed to protect the privacy of the person involved.  You will need the explicit consent of the individual to disclose the information to co-workers, for example.  The information conveyed to you can only be used for the purpose intended by the disclosure – e.g. to enable a reasonable adjustment to their workload or pattern of work.

The exception would be where the person discloses that they are experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings.  In this case, you will need to seek professional support.  Beyond Blue has some very sound and detailed guidelines for the conversation in these situations, including what language to use.  ConNetica, in their blog post Chats for life APP, also provides an App (with practical conversation tips) which has been designed by young people for young people experiencing mental health problems, and possibly suicidal thoughts and feelings.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become more aware of the early signs of mental illness, have the courage and confidence to have the AYOK conversation and a willingness to take compassionate action.

 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Being Mindful of Mental Health in the Workplace

There are at least five pieces of legislation in Australia that require directors, executives and managers to be mindful of mental health in the workplace.  These pieces of legislation highlight the duty of care responsibility of organisation office holders and managers to be mindful and proactive in developing a mentally healthy workplace.

The Portner Press publication,  Mental Health at Work Guide 2018,  identifies the following pieces of legislation that are relevant and reinforcing of this responsibility:

  • Fair Work Act
  • Common Law
  • Workplace Health & Safety legislation
  • Anti-discrimination legislation
  • Worker’s Compensation legislation

Despite this legislative responsibility very few managers are adequately trained to be aware of mental health in the workplace or to know how to take appropriate, compassionate action.  The Heads Up organisation, a mentally healthy workplace alliance, identifies awareness and responsiveness of managers and staff as one of the nine attributes of a mentally healthy workplace:

Ensure that managers and staff are responsive to employees’ mental health conditions, regardless of cause and that adjustments to work and counselling support are available.

There are numerous video resources available to help managers and staff become more aware of, and responsive to, mental health issues in the workplace.  One such resource is the video of the webinar conducted by Belinda Winter, partner  of law firm Cooper Grace Ward, where she explores managing mental illness in the workplace.

A toolkit for a mentally healthy workplace

WorkSafe Queensland provides a superb and comprehensive Mentally Healthy Workplaces Toolkit which is accessible online to help managers exercise their responsibility to be mindful of mental health in the workplace.  The toolkit is built around the four pillars of awareness and responsiveness, namely:

  1. Promote positive mental health at work
  2. Prevent psychological harm
  3. Intervene early
  4. Support recovery

Each of these steps requires managers and staff to be mindful about the state of mental health in the workplace and to be proactive in pursuing processes, policies, systems, leadership style and an organisational culture that are conducive to positive mental health.

Mindfulness training supports managers in their duty of care

Mindfulness training, along with appropriate action learning interventions, can help build the requisite culture and assist managers and staff in exercising  their duty of care and maintaining their own self-care.

As managers and staff grow in mindfulness through meditation practice and training they can become more mindful of mental health issues in the workplace and more responsive to the needs of individuals.  The managers will be better equipped to exercise their duty of care and related responsibility for creating a mentally healthy workplace.

 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Wokandapix on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.