Reach Out To Feel Better - The Gloss Magazine
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Reach Out To Feel Better

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Small moments of connection improve our health and happiness …

RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Centre for Positive Psychology and Health has launched a ten-lecture series called the Science of Health and Happiness. Sharing the lecture content with thegloss.ie, this week Dr Trudy Meehan, Lecturer and Senior Clinical Psychologist, reveals how small moments of connection, even between strangers, and self-compassion can improve our health and happiness.

When I was six years old, something happened to change the course of my life. I had open-heart surgery for an Atrial Septal Defect, an ASD, commonly known as a hole in the heart. At the time, during one of the pre-operative assessments, I overheard one of the medical professionals say to my parents that I was very fortunate. They said that I was lucky because of the advances in science and that if I had been born 100 years ago, I wouldn’t have lived past the age of 21. Overhearing that conversation has left me with a deep sense of our interconnection and our interdependence. Dr Maurice Nelligan was the heart surgeon who fixed my heart. I have a great appreciation for his skills and his life, as I am sure many of his patients have.

It’s probably not surprising that I ended up working as a clinical psychologist, sitting with people in times of trouble and difficulties. I believe in the power of human connection. So when I talk about health and happiness, I like to focus on relationships and connection.

I also want to focus on compassion, particularly self-compassion, because our relationship with ourselves is the first and most important of our intimate relationships.

Harvard Medical School conducted a remarkable longitudinal study following the lives of 724 men over more than 75 years. One of their most remarkable findings is that, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. And loneliness kills. When we gather together everything we knew about them at age 50 [the men who took part in this study], it wasn’t their middle-aged cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were healthiest at age 80.” (Prof. Robert Waldinger, Harvard Medical School). The other side of the research is that loneliness is bad for us. Connection seems to moderate stress and, in this way, protect our health. But these findings are hard to hear if you are single, either by choice or circumstance, or are in an unhappy relationship.

What about people who are not in satisfying relationships? Are they doomed in terms of health and happiness? The work of Barbara Fredrickson shows that there are many types of satisfying relationships and more nuanced ways to think about love, other than romantic love. Fredrickson defines love as “positivity resonance, micro-moments of positive connection, even between strangers.” Love, it turns out, requires only connection and not the intimacy or shared life that comes with a long-term romantic bond. This research is significant because it means that moments of love and connection, which are health and wellness promoting, are available to all of us, all of the time. Fredrickson’s work demonstrates a synchronisation of brain, body, and heart when we talk to and listen to another person. This synching is a shared emotional and biological experience that produces effects that help people feel calm, connected, and cared for. Love, for Fredrickson, is one event shared across two bodies.

These research findings are a good story because it means we can have these wellness-giving moments in our daily lives with people we love and even with strangers. The other thing that’s important about this research is the finding that experiencing positive emotion prompts us to expand our awareness. When we feel positive, our thinking becomes more expansive so that we can focus more on “we”. So when we have moments of connection and love, we are more likely to think in an inclusive, more community-focused way. Being able to think about the other is particularly relevant at the moment when we are tying to make sacrifices for the good of wider society. The more moments of love and connection we can experience, the more likely we can tolerate the sacrifices we are being asked to make.

Moments of love and connection, which are health and wellness promoting, are available to all of us, all of the time.

Another way to have moments of positive emotion and love is self-love or self-compassion. We’re too good at being self-critical and judgemental. Many of us do not have good relationships with ourselves, which has been particularly challenging during the pandemic. When we are stuck with ourselves as our only companion, the kind of a friend we are to ourselves becomes a more urgent issue.

One of the leading self-compassion researchers, Kirsten Neff, explains that it’s much easier to be the critic rather than the one who messed up. We can say, “See, I knew that it wouldn’t work; I knew you would fail”. We shame and judge ourselves. One way to stop this is to engage in self-compassion deliberately. The good news is that self-compassion can be trained. If we get better at self-compassion, the benefits are two-fold. We stop the criticism and shaming. We also get to have increased activation in the areas of the brain associated with love, connection, positive emotions, hope, and reward. Self-compassion stops us from being mean to ourselves. It also acts as a buffer against other types of distress by making us more positive and more resilient.

Neff talks about three components of self-compassion. The first is mindfulness. What she means by mindfulness is awareness of the feeling. The ability to recognise that you’re in pain and name it. So, for example, you might say, “Ouch! That doesn’t feel good.” Or “Ooofff! That was like a kick in the stomach.” We name it to help us be aware of the feeling. Then we need to try to accept it and just let it exist. We accept it so that we can then let it go and move on. It’s easier to let feelings go once we have given them a few seconds to acknowledge and accept them.

The second step to self-compassion is tapping into our sense of shared humanity. This step is crucial because it buffers us against feeling shame and isolation. We need to understand that the experience we are going through is part of being human. Many other people have gone, will, or are currently going through this feeling and this experience. Not this exact one, but something similar. We connect with our sense of common humanity to avoid feeling like we’re on our own.

The last step in self-compassion is that we are kind. This is a warm, soft kindness towards ourselves rather than the standard harsh, judgemental shame causing self-criticism in the face of setbacks.

These steps are straightforward but challenging to remember to do. Practicing “gestures of self-compassion” can be one way to train ourselves. Each of these steps has a specific gesture that we can get into the habit of doing during our regular day. So mindful awareness and acceptance is the action of extending our arms out to the sides and extending our palms upward. Palms are upward and open as if we are giving our pain and worries back to the universe or wherever we want them to go. Then common humanity is a gesture much like a hug. We extend our arms in front of us in an embrace. We imagine connecting, in a hug, with others who are also suffering. And then finally, kindness is a gesture of hugging your heart. We do this by placing one hand on our heart and then the other hand over the first one. We cup our hands over our heart in a soft hugging motion. We all have time to give our hearts a little hug every day.

This “hand on the heart” gesture is very moving, especially if we’re busy and we just haven’t stopped lately to give ourselves a hug or give ourselves a minute or two be gentle or kind to ourselves. These are tiny things that take just a few seconds. Researchers have used a specific meditation practice called Loving Kindness Meditation to train compassion and self-compassion. If you are serious about developing your compassion muscles, this is the way to go. You can find Dr Pádraic Dunne’s Loving Kindness Meditation at this link.

You can find lots of versions of lovingkindness meditations online. They all share the same sequence of giving compassion to those you love, to acquaintances who you neither love nor hate, to people you don’t really like, and then giving compassion to yourself as well.

By practicing compassion, we get better at it. It’s like fitness training. If you’ve ever done 0-5K, or interval training to get better at jogging, you know the process. Tiny bits of practice, regularly, building up capacity that over time takes you from sitting on your couch to running 5k. We were isolated and self-critical even before the pandemic. We can use this time to learn to be more compassionate to ourselves and appreciate micro-moments of positive connection with each other.

Don’t wait for a heart operation to be the thing that makes you aware of our interconnection to others. Do it now because life is happening all around us, and these are the small things that we can do in our everyday life that are available to us right now. Keep your heart open to connection and compassion.

Registration for the RCSI Science of Health and Happiness course is available at https://rcsi.eventsair.com/the-science-of-health-and-happiness/registration/Site/Register. The course is free and consists of one pre-recorded lecture per week. Registration is open until the end of May.

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