A while ago I wrote about self-compassion and also about the inner critic. These themes play in my mind a lot and I took a deeper dive. So today I’ll elaborate on these previous posts.
Compassion is a recognition of and engagement with suffering, together with a commitment to alleviate or to prevent it.
Let’s start at the very beginning, the brain.
We do have an old and a new brain. This developed during our evolution as humans. Animals have an old brain which is also called the reptilian brain. It holds the basic biological desires to survive. It gives you the cue to eat when hungry and it makes you breath, wake up, become tired etc. The amygdala which regulates our emotions also belongs to the reptilian brain.
Humans also have a new brain, it has been developed more recent. Still very old though! The new brain makes it possible for us to plan, to have a sense of self, to think about the past and even to think about things that aren’t even there, in our imagination. These thoughts and patterns helps us to make sense of the world.
How do they work together, the old and the new brain?
They are supposed to but that doesn’t always happen according to plan. Let’s illustrate that. Imagine (!) an elephant eating his bamboo for the day in all peace and quiet. Suddenly a hungry lion comes along. The elephant notices the threat and starts to run and it manages to shake the lion off. What will the elephant do with the rest of his day? Will it starts thinking about that he was stupid not to eat during the night as he usually does? Will he become sad thinking about what will happen to its baby elephants if he was killed by the lion? Or will he continue eating when he sees the next yummy bamboo on the way? You guessed right I think. With humans the new brain kicks in and we are able to start ruminate. The elephant  just eats. Another example will make it even more clear, animals don’t worry about their self-image. They are not that self-aware as we are. I find my dog to be the most beautiful dog of the world but I doubt if he thinks that about himself.
Being born with different ‘systems’ in the brain, doesn’t imply that everything is easily managed.
What systems are we talking about?
At the bottom of the picture you see our threat system. That is the one that keeps us alive and its sole function is to keep us from harm and safe. Therefore this system must be precise and quick. It is activated when a threat is perceived and it will narrow our attention (it’s not helpful to notice all the beautiful flowers when you’ve just noticed a lion), it makes rapid decisions (fight, flight, freeze or appease), decisions tend to be more extreme (when you hide, you make sure you’re not half-ass things), you don’t see so many positives (you’ll not start counting calories and be over the moon happy with your workout due to the lion) and you thrive on your instincts which means that you act before you think. The whole purpose of this system is ‘better safe than sorry’.
Are we being chased by lions this day and age? Not really but there are external and internal situations that trigger the system. A loud noise, your neighbor coughing or sneezing, a critique of your person, rumination, anxiety etc.
I mentioned a social situation as being critiqued. All kind of things can trigger the threat system. Let’s imagine an argument with your loved one. You can be angry during the argument, thinking about how you’re ‘right’ and how to get your point across. You can feel anxious because you also fear for the relation itself and you can feel sad, realizing that this is really the 100th time you’re having this argument and you can’t talk it out. These responses from the tread system can be complex and overwhelming.
The other one is the soothing system. This is an answer to the tread system. When we’re in this one, we feel calm, content and peaceful. ‘We don’t need anything else.’ We can focus on affiliation and connection with others as well as with ourselves. This is our evolved system for regulating as well the treat as the drive system.
The drive system makes us feel enthusiastic, energized, excited. It makes us focus on goals to achieve, it makes us feel proud when those goals are reached. It helps us to get the resources that we need to complete tasks. Here we can plan to survive. Maybe by picking some berries or to preserve meat for difficult times.
Now take a moment or write down in all honesty how many time you spend in each circle the past week. Tell me, was is all even or did one outweigh the others?
We see that most people spend quite some time in the threat circle. Others – surely in the West – spend a lot of time in the drive system.
The daily situations we encounter activate all three systems and we need to balance them in order to experience well-being. And that is where the problem lies with depression. It doesn’t make the drive system easy accessible to us. It becomes more difficult for people with depression to motivate themselves or to reach goals. It is not your fault, we are wired that way to pay attention to the negatives first. Remember the threat system? Better safe than sorry! While we’re trying to survive with depression, we spend a lot of time in the thread circle. As a result we feel trapped, irritable, frustrated or anxious. It throws the other two systems out of balance too and we see that we feel disconnected, alone or unsafe while in the soothing system and feeling of numbness, despair and hopelessness in the drive system.
How can we try to change that or how to achieve a more balanced state?
Last week I wrote about the inner critic. I did receive a very interesting question from Mentally Ill in America about the connection between depression and the inner critic.
The inner critic is both a predisposing and maintaining factor in depression. When we are able to change our response to the inner critic, we can change how we feel.
When we hear our inner critic tell us that “we are lazy” or that “we are worthless” depression will not make you fight or let these things go. Depleted of mental capacity it becomes quite hard to resist the message and we accept it. We appease. Through self-compassion we can learn a different approach to it. We can think “You’re a worthwhile person. You’re just suffering right now. It is really hard” or “ Having depression affects my energy levels. It’s not just me.”
The goal here would be to adapt new pathways of thinking; in what you say and how you say it to yourself. When you are mindful and pay attention to your soothing system you can spend more time there and balance your week out!
Our brains are drown to threat or to negative situations. That is not through our fault nor by choice! We need to be a little more active to pay attention to soothing and connection. This takes an active effort.
“A key issue is to stop blaming ourselves for the way we feel or react. We can, however, take responsibility for what we pay attention to, instead of letting our threat and drive system rule our minds. We have a great capacity for enjoyment, happiness, caring and peacefulness, and these are part of our brains’ design too.” Prof. Russell Kolts.
How does practicing self-compassion for depression looks like?
We can try to start to spend some moments in the soothing circle. When we notice some triggers or we feel exhausted by living in the threat circle we can activate the soothing circle as it will balance things out. We could do breathing exercises, read, move, listen to music … We can validate our feelings, step out of them and just noticing them. We can do small things in a mindful manner like doing dishes, brushing your teeth etc. You can practice gratefulness (what went well today?) or you can reach out to supportive others. Smells are also really good to activate the soothing system. A nice smell can make you feel more relaxed and therefore pull you out of the threat circle.
This will lead you to some goals or to some other behaviors that were maybe difficult to reach. Through the soothing system, you’ll change things in the drive system too. As you become more balanced, you’ll notice that sometimes depression pushes you to engage with what you fear.
What do you do the sooth yourself? Do you have balance in the three systems? Do you think it is a helpful way to visualize the importance of self-compassion? Let me know what you think in the comments!
Notes, resources and further reads.
 Animals can get depressed too. They of course experience emotions in their way and they are sentient beings. This is a mere example between the two systems we’re discussing in this post.
Post about self-compassion.
Post about the inner critic.
More in depth talk about self-compassion and depression click here.
Picture 1 credits click here.