How Self-Compassion Helps with Anxiety

Anxiety can be a loud voice in your head telling you that something bad is going to happen.   Your heart rate starts to quicken, your thoughts speed up, and you feel a knot in your stomach. At times, you might feel disconnected from yourself or the world around you.

Moments in which you are experiencing anxiety can be quite uncomfortable. They can also be an opportunity to practice relating to yourself with self-compassion.

What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion has three parts:

  1. Self-kindness (instead of self-judgment)
    Self-kindness involves opening up to your experience in the present moment, whether feelings of joy or sadness, and acknowledging your experience with warmth and love.
  2. Common humanity (instead of isolation)
    Self-compassion includes an acknowledgement that suffering is a normal part of being a human being. Often we feel alone or isolated in our suffering, but it is actually what connects us to others.
  3. Mindfulness (instead of over-identifying)
    Mindfulness involves observing thoughts and feelings, rather than identifying asthoughts and feelings. There is a difference between noticing the content of your thinking (e.g., “I’m having the thought that something bad is going to happen”) and taking your thoughts at face value and buying into the content of your thinking (e.g., “Something badis going to happen”).

One important study found that more self-compassion is associated with less symptoms of anxiety and depression. This does not mean that people engaging in self-compassion do not feel anxious or sad sometimes. They certainly do, as do all of us. However, welcoming rather than criticizing experiences of anxiety allows us to let go of struggling with anxiety, helping us let go of harsh judgments of ourselves and our experiences.

One of the great things about self-compassion exercises is that they can be practiced at any time. You can feel incredibly sad, anxious, or frustrated with yourself, and begin to build a habit of self-compassion.

How Do I Practice Self-Compassion?

Dr. Kristin Neff is probably the world’s leading expert on self-compassion and one of the key exercises she teaches is something called the “Self-Compassion Break.”

The exercise is done when you are in the midst of a situation that is causing your suffering or you are feeling something like anxiety, frustration, sadness, or any other painful emotion. You can use this exercise during any moment where you are having a hard time. The basic instructions include three steps:

  1. Acknowledge the pain or discomfort that you are feeling. You might say, “This is a moment of suffering.”
  2. Acknowledge your connectedness to others. You could say, “Suffering is a part of life.”
  3. Put your hands over your heart and say, “May I be kind to myself.”

If you want to hear an audio version, you can listen to it here. For a more detailed description of the exercise, see here. Once you practice the exercise a few times, you’ll find you can do it quite quickly whenever you need it.


Relating to your anxiety with self-compassion can help you make space for it, allowing it to be, rather than getting caught in a prolonged game of “anxiety tug-of-war.” Through self-compassion–through learning to relate to yourself and your experiences with kindness and compassion–you can learn to let go of internal struggles and connect more fully with the world around you.

For more self-compassion meditations or exercises, you can visit Dr. Neff’s resources or resources compiled by Portland Psychotherapy.

Click here to learn more about Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy

Pain, values, compassion, and a dying dog

“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”

 — Rumi

Just about three years ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Pain and values: two sides of the same coin” about our amazing dog Dalai. That post turned out to be one of the most popular pieces I’ve written. I wrote about the simultaneous, and I would say inseparably linked, love and pain that was consistently present for me when I was with Dalai, who was somewhere around 17-18 years old at the time. Because so many people have talked to me about that piece, I thought I would share an update and also some new thoughts I have on the topic of pain and values. If you want to read the original piece, you can find it here.

Dalai is still here, and so is the pain.

Believe it or not, Dalai is still with us, and at around 20+ years old, I’d say that little old lady is doing something right! She comes to work with us every day, usually riding in a trailer pulled behind the bike. She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer about a year ago and has been on palliative care since. With the help of our amazing veterinarian, Heather Dillon, DVM, we’re able to manage her physical pain quite well and Dalai still has a wonderful quality of life.

And though I feel incredibly fortunate that Dalai is still with us, so too is the pain, anxiety, and sadness I feel when I think about what is to come. In fact, it’s difficult to admit, but there are even times when the pain is so intense that I notice having the thought that I wish it was over. Then of course I feel incredible pain at having that thought and the cycle goes on.

Compassion as palliative care

In my last post about this, I focused on the idea that I can’t move in the direction of my values if I’m not willing to experience painful thoughts and feelings – If I’m not willing to have those painful thoughts and the sadness that shows up when I’m with Dalai, I can’t care for her in the way I would choose to during this time in her life. The only way to get away from these difficult thoughts and feelings is to not be around her. And while it’s still very painful for me to be around Dalai, I’m not willing to give up one moment I could have with her just to avoid that pain. And in these past few years as both she and I have been working through the process of her aging and dying, I’ve learned a few things about how I want to be with that pain. So I thought I’d share something that for me has become an essential component in that equation of values and pain– compassion.

Just as my loved ones and I have been very intentional over these past several years about attending to Dalai’s physical pain as best we can, it’s also been helpful for me to attend to the emotional pain that those of us who love Dalai feel as we see her dying. Compassion, which literally means “to suffer together”, is a willingness to be present to suffering (another’s or your own) and a desire to ease that suffering. Compassion, including self-compassion, is my palliative care. It is what I am using to help ease the suffering my loved ones and I are feeling. Even though I help people develop self-compassion and be intentional about their values for a living, I found that although I wasn’t avoiding being with Dalai in order to avoid feeling the pain, I wasn’t fully present to it either; it was more like, “Well, that’s there and there’s nothing I can do about it, so I’m just not going to think about it.” And that can be helpful at times. But that isn’t how I treat others that I love when they are in pain and it felt incongruent with my values to treat my own pain in that way. So, over the past couple of years I have focused more and more on using compassion exercises in my own life, as a way to not only ease the pain I am feeling, but also honor it.

Quick self-compassion break

One of my favorite compassion exercises that I’ve incorporated into my life is Kristen Neff’s Self Compassion Break. The self-compassion break exercise gives me a way to treat myself with gentleness and kindness and also connect to the common humanity that is suffering. It is very quick and you can do it anywhere, which is great given that pain does not conveniently just show up when I have time to do a 30 minute compassion meditation. You can find an audio of the exercise here and a written script here. So next time you notice struggling with painful thoughts or feelings, especially when you know they are linked with something you care very deeply about, you might consider giving this exercise a try. And If you’re interested in reading more about compassion, my colleagues Jason Luoma (who also happens to be Dalai’s guardian too!) and Melissa Platt and I have a site dedicated to our work in that area called “ACT With Compassion” that you can check out here.

Thomas Merton once wrote that “Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.” When I am practicing compassion, I also often notice being more connected to all beings, including that little old dog at the heart of this all.

“I Already ate Half a Box of Cookies, I Might As Well Eat Them All”

If you’ve ever tried to change your diet, you’ve probably experienced a situation like the following:   You’re committed to pursuing a healthy lifestyle and as part of that commitment you’ve decided to reduce the amount of processed sugar you eat. It’s been tough, but over several weeks you’ve steadily decreased it. Then, you’re invited to a friend’s birthday party. At this party there are delicious, decadent cupcakes. Everyone’s enjoying themselves eating those lovely cupcakes. Your friend asks you if you want one and you say…”Yes.” You think, “One won’t hurt! It’s a celebration.” So, you eat a cupcake. If you stopped right there, after this initial slip, it wouldn’t be a big deal. You could just go back to your plan for eating healthy. But you don’t. Before you know it, you eat a second cupcake, drink 2 cups of sparkling orange juice, and eat a bunch of candy.

You are not alone in having this experience. Time and again I hear friends and associates talk about how they ate a whole loaf of bread (those who were on the Atkins diet), ate a whole box of cookies (those on just about any diet), or ordered the Grande size nachos when they were out at a happy hour (I, myself have been guilty of ordering a mountain of nachos even though I highly value a healthy lifestyle). An interesting phenomenon can occur after this initial slip into old habits (eating or other habits we’re trying to change). This occurs so frequently that researchers have studied it and clinicians have come up with strategies to combat it. The phenomenon I’m describing is called the Abstinence Violation Effect.

Abstinence what?

The Abstinence Violation Effect (abbreviated AVE) occurs when a person lapses, or slips, into an old pattern of behavior and then continues this pattern of behavior beyond the initial slip. Let’s come back to our cupcake example to more closely examine AVE. You experienced a lapse when you ate the first cupcake (you violated your commitment to a reduced sugar diet). You then ate a whole bunch of things loaded with sugar following your initial lapse. What just happened? When we violate a commitment we’ve made to change our behavior, an interesting combination of thoughts and feelings occurs. You might have thoughts like, “well, I already had one, might as well have another!” or “I just blew my diet so it’s ruined and it doesn’t matter what I eat now, because I already blew it.” We may also feel guilt, shame, or anxiety during or after our initial slip. This pattern of negative feelings, thoughts related to our initial slip (e.g., “I blew it, might as well forego the rest of my diet today”), and actions (e.g., eating another cupcake, drinking 2 cups of juice, and eating a bunch of candy) make up the Abstinence Violation Effect.

The Abstinence Violation Effect relates to any kind of habit change

This effect applies to anyone who is trying to break a habit. That habit could relate to patterns of eating, as in the example above, or it can relate to trying to exercise more, to stop biting your finger nails, or reducing drug or alcohol use. For people who are trying to stop or cut back on drug or alcohol use,  the abstinence violation effect can turn an initial slip (e.g., one drink after a period of sobriety), into a full-blown relapse (i.e., going back to old patterns of drinking or using). The consequences of AVE can be especially high for individuals with addictions and can lead to a cycle of multiple relapses or accidental overdose.

What can I do when I experience a slip? Practical tips for combating the AVE.

Being aware that the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE) occurs is your first step in combating it. Armed with this knowledge you can develop strategies to help you avoid or reduce the impact of AVE. Some helpful strategies for AVE include :

  • Prepare yourself for high-risk situations (e.g., places where an initial slip may occur, such as birthday parties when you are on a diet) by making a plan to reduce or avoid triggers for your old behavior. For example, you can eat before you go to the party so you are too full to eat a cupcake. You can also reduce the amount of sugar you eat during the day of the party so you can have part or all of a cupcake without going over your allotted amount of daily sugar. You can speak with your partner or friend and enlist them to help you cope with temptation when at the party. Another idea is to tell your friend at the party about your commitment and how she can help support you (e.g., not offer you cake) before the cake comes out.
  • Remind yourself of your values related to why you are changing your behavior. For example, you might remind yourself of your values (why you are making the change in your life) on a daily basis by writing them down and placing them in strategic places (the fridge, your wallet, your pocket). You can set a reminder on your phone that helps you remember your values (e.g., a picture of your kids to remind you that you are committed to a healthy lifestyle so you can be around longer).
  • Encourage yourself if you do slip. Remind yourself that many people slip when making lifestyle changes; in fact, slipping is the norm! Congratulate yourself on the changes that you have made so far and tell yourself that one slip (or even many slips) does not mean that all the time and efforts you’ve made are worthless. Remind yourself that you can recover from a slip and that you are capable of recovering from it. Beating yourself up about slipping up is not.
  • Come up with a plan for how you will recover from your slip-up. Think of concrete steps you can take to get back on track following a lapse and write these down on a piece of paper. Put this paper in a place where you can easily access it.

A slip does not need to be the end of your pursuit of positive life changes, whether it is changing your diet or cutting back or stopping use of drugs or alcohol. By being aware of the Abstinence Violation Effect and developing strategies to combat it, you can remain on or quickly return to your path of valued living.