Kindness - Mental Health Awareness Week 2020
Today marks the start of this year’s Mental Health Awareness week, the theme of which is Kindness. The Mental Health Foundation report that they have chosen Kindness because:
- Kindness strengthens relationships
- Kindness develops community and deepens solidarity
- Kindness is a cornerstone of our individual and collective mental health
- Wisdom from every culture across history recognises that kindness is something that all human beings need to experience and practise to be fully alive
There are many ways that we can practise kindness, whether it be towards our selves or towards others. To share a little of my experience in becoming more aware of the effects of kindness, I was introduced to loving-kindness otherwise known as ‘metta’ meditation by Heather Mason during my Yoga Therapy for Mental Health training. This meditation involves repeating phrases silently about the universality of suffering (i.e. we all suffer, we all have struggles no matter how big or small), developing awareness of the potential suffering or struggles of ourselves and others and then simply sending a well wish to ourselves and others in the context of this. It’s a simple practise, in fact so simple that I immediately dismissed it as being ‘stupid’ and something that would never bring about any meaningful impact on my life. That was over 10 years ago and how wrong I was. As it was part of my training, I had to persevere with this practise and I’m incredibly grateful that I did.
In time, I noticed myself considering alternative explanations behind the actions of others. To take a simple example, why someone might have pushed past to get on the train before me. See before, I would have assumed it was because they were ‘just rude and inconsiderate’ or they ‘did it to annoy me’, however, alongside my metta practise, I started to bring other interpretations of the situation into my awareness – 'perhaps their boss at work is bullying them and they can’t risk being late', 'maybe they just had some bad news and they need to get somewhere quickly to address it', 'maybe they’re just really stressed out and they haven’t even realised they’ve pushed past me'. In reality, I could never know why they pushed past me but focusing my attention on the explanations based on kindness reduced any negative impact on me that would likely be intensified had I chosen to focus on explanations of them being inconsiderate and having done it on purpose to annoy me. This is one simple example, but think about how many judgements and interpretations that we make everyday - developing our capacity for kindness has a huge potential to change the way we feel and that influences how productive we are, our ability to relax and our relationships with others.
You can read more about the benefits of metta meditation in an earlier blog post linking it’s practise with beneficial effects on immune and cardiovascular functioning, and pain perception. In a more recent study, Holden at al (2020) observed that treating oneself with kindness and acceptance is strongly correlated with health promoting behaviours and Graser and Strangier’s (2018) review of existing research studies concluded that loving kindness meditation and compassion-based interventions may be effective in treating a wide range of clinical conditions including depression ,anxiety disorders, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you’d like to have a see for yourself, I‘ve recorded a metta meditation practise that you can access for free here (it doesn't take long, less than 5 minutes, but I recommend trying it consistently for a least a few weeks, remember, initially I thought it was stupid......).
We can also practise asking some simple questions to help us bring kindness into the equation, for example, if we notice that self-critical voice pop up we can ask ourselves:
- Would I ever say the things that I’m saying to myself to another person? If not, why not?
- Would I speak to someone that I love or respect in that way? If not, why not?
- Would I recommend someone that I love to speak to themselves in this way? If not, why not?
- How is it helping me, or not, to speak to myself in this way?
- What’s the tone of voice I’m using? What happens when I change that tone of voice to a kinder one?
We can also ask similar questions when it comes to our interpretation of the behaviour of others e.g could there be other reasons why they have behaved the way they have, is it really just about trying to hurt me / others or cause me / others difficulty – are there other factors? Have they even realised that they have caused difficulty or upset? May they themselves be struggling with something?
We can also practise purposefully engaging in one small act of kindness to ourselves or others every day, there are some good ideas here on the Action for Happiness Kindness Calender. It’s from December 2019 so some suggestions may need some social-distancing considerations……
I encourage you to experiment with kindness based responses and activities for yourself and see if it has any impact on your day, your life, trying it out for yourself is the only way you'll ever know. You can read more about Mental Health Awareness Week here.