Dr. Jessica LoPresti
Chief Medical Officer, WhiteFlag
There’s a myth out there that mental health professionals don’t experience mental health challenges. The most important intervention I use with clients is normalizing the experience of anxiety and sharing effective coping strategies that I use to manage my own anxiety.
In this 3-part blog series, I will share the 3 most effective strategies I use to manage my own anxiety.
Let’s start with Self-Compassion:
The psychological experience that is germane to the development and maintenance of anxiety and stress is the experience of negative self-focused thoughts (e.g. the way we think about and perceive ourselves in negative ways). We are constantly beating ourselves up for the very natural, human emotional responses we have to our environment. When we experience something challenging in our lives (e.g. loss of a loved one, financial stressors, argument with a partner, oppression) our first response is often judgment or there is criticism of our emotional reactions. “I shouldn’t be angry,” “what’s wrong with me,” “I’m so weak for crying,” “I should be used to this by now.”
We are our own toughest critics. In fact, we are socialized to believe that negative emotional experiences (e.g. sadness and anxiety) are synonymous with weakness. We are socialized to believe that being hard on ourselves leads to a better, healthier, happier life. We negatively judge ourselves in hopes that the negative judgment will motivate us to change. As with everything in life, it’s just not that simple.
Here’s the truth (or at least part of it): Self-criticism and judgment activate and exacerbate our stress responses. When we are actively criticizing ourselves, we trick our bodies and minds into thinking that we are under threat. Self-criticism and judgment can lead to the activation of our fight, flight, or freeze response and subsequent physical health issues (e.g. high blood pressure, heart disease). Judging and criticizing ourselves frequently and pervasively forces us into self-protection mode during which all of our resources are focused on managing our anxiety at the expense of thriving, striving, and overall wellness.
“If you do not love yourself, you cannot love others. If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not capable of developing compassion for others.” – Dalai Lama
Self-compassion involves 3 important things: (1) Self-kindness, (2) Common humanity and connectedness, (3) Presence or mindfulness.
Self-kindness (as opposed to self-criticism) involves being warm, loving, and caring towards ourselves when we fall short, fail, make a mistake, or suffer. At the core of self-kindness is recognizing that being imperfect is inevitable. Being gentle with ourselves when we are confronted with emotional pain is an important choice. Let us make that choice over and over again.
Common Humanity and Connectedness:
We must recognize that the experience of pain and imperfection is core to the human experience. We are not alone in our pain or imperfection. Of course, our pain varies in terms of privilege, marginalization, and overall life context. AND, we are not alone. May we commit to reminding ourselves and those around us to stay connected to each other and to humanity.
Presence, in the moment, is the key to self-compassion. Self-compassion cannot exist if we ignore or avoid our pain. In fact, attempts to ignore, control, or suppress our pain is akin to pouring gasoline on the fire of our emotions. Learning to acknowledge and approach our emotional pain allows us to make the choice to give ourselves the loving kindness we deserve.
“Talk to yourself as you would someone you love.” – Brene Brown
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