The role of compassion and kindness during the pandemic

Mental Health Awareness Week, which this year has a focus on kindness, reminds us of how being kind, both to ourselves and others, maybe our biggest defence against the consequences of Covid-19.

The current fight against Covid-19 is like no other known in living history. The UK and the world are at once united – not in a battle against people or countries – but against an invisible, inhuman enemy.

We are all fighting to save lives: whether we are fighting the want to be close to those we care about, to ensure essential services, or on the frontline of our NHS.

Yet research is showing that our determination to win this battle is resulting in injury to our mental health. Since the Covid-19 crisis began, levels of stress, depression and anxiety have been shown to be elevated across the nation.

What keeps us fighting, when it comes at such a cost to our mental health?

I believe the reason to be something directly opposite in nature to Covid-19, and the best immune defence that we currently have against it: the human capacity for compassion and kindness.

As the destructive impact of Covid-19 continues to emerge, so, then, do the countering acts of kindness:

  • we unite on our doorsteps to applaud our key workers
  • we display symbols of support in our windows
  • we smile with strangers at our awkwardness in diligently maintaining a 2m distance from each other in the supermarket
  • we donate millions to fundraising efforts such as Captain Tom Moore’s 100th birthday walk (and I shed almost as many tears of admiration)
  • we shield those who are most vulnerable
  • we reach out virtually to support one another

Alone, each small act may feel of little significance. Yet together, I believe they have the potential to create a force of greater strength and contagion than that of Covid-19.

But what have kindness and compassion got to do with mental health?

Social support is one of the biggest factors in determining how we cope with adversity, and demonstrating kindness and compassion, both to ourselves and others, are hugely beneficial for our mental health.

In other words, when we feel supported by those around us, we feel better able to deal with the challenges of life. Also, showing compassion and kindness to those around us doesn’t just help lift the spirits of others, but can help us feel good about ourselves, too.

Social-distancing, of course, makes this more challenging, yet, as the examples above show, we’ve proven how adaptive we can be in the face of this. Research has found that those who have perceived greater kindness from others and a stronger sense of community connectedness have shown better mental health and wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis.

Yet feeling kind and compassionate to others can be difficult if we don’t feel these things toward ourselves. In times of stress, we have an unhelpful tendency to often be hard on ourselves. If left unchecked, this can draw us into a negative spiral and lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression. When this happens, kindness and compassion might feel completely alien and leave us feeling disconnected from others.

What can we do about it?

As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Self-compassion and being kind toward our selves isn’t selfish or self-indulgent. Similar to eating, sleeping and exercising, this is arguably an essential form of nourishment which enables us to function at our best and be fully present for those around us.

So, make being kind and compassionate a priority. First and foremost, toward yourself. If you are managing to remember what date it is (the 52nd of March, right?), then give yourself a pat on the back.

Every single one of us is facing exceptional challenges right now, and you are probably in the minority if you haven’t felt somewhat overwhelmed at times.

A good place to start can be to pay attention to how we feel and acknowledge any distress that we notice.

By compassionately and non-judgementally observing and accepting distress as a normal part of being a thinking-feeling human being (let alone one living through a pandemic), this can help us to think about being more kind toward ourselves.

Cultivating self-compassion and kindness can, however, take some practice, especially if you are experiencing a lot of stress or are symptoms of a mental health condition*. To help, you can find some useful exercises online.

United in compassion

So, by remembering how compassion and kindness can be beneficial for both ourselves and for others, perhaps this can help us to endure these exceptional times as best we can, and emerge from the crisis as a nation united in compassion and kindness.

*If you are experiencing an overwhelming level of distress which you are finding difficult to manage alone, please reach out. Services and charities are still there to support you.

Support and information

Sources

  1. Fancourt, D., Bu, F., Wan Mak, H., Steptoe, A. (2020). Covid-19 Social Study: Results Release 7
  2. White, R.G., & Van der Boor, C. (preprint). The impact of the COVID19 pandemic and initial period of lockdown on the mental health and wellbeing of UK adults

 

Alice Roberts

Alice is a Psychology Assistant with the National Centre of Mental Health.

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