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Musings from learning that a 2-minute posture can change hormone levels

Compassion-focused therapy aims to help us cultivate certain skills, qualities, feeling states, and motivations (e.g., skills and qualities compassion, feelings of safeness, the motivation to show care and to alleviate suffering). These we can then use to help work with particular difficulties or situations such as shame, self-criticism, or difficult emotions. Compassion-focused therapy also aims to help address and alleviate the fears and blocks we may have to experiencing compassion (whether offering compassion or receiving it). This is important as sometimes people feel afraid of compassion such as feeling afraid to receive compassion from others or feeling afraid to receive compassion from themselves.

Part of the way we develop any skill is through learning and practice. One of the practices within compassion-focused therapy is to imagine ourselves having certain qualities such as warmth, kindness, wisdom, a sense of responsibility and the desire to help (to imagine our “compassionate self”). We may be able to feel and imagine ourselves having these qualities at any particular time — or we may not be able to feel them. In the latter case, we are encouraged to imagine what it might be like if we did have these qualities, whether or not we currently feel them. This is similar to the instruction in loving kindness mediations to not worry about whether you can actually feel loving kindness (and to direct it to yourself or to another) but rather to focus on your intention to cultivate this quality even if you don’t feel it.

The following TED Talk presented by Amy Cuddy is not about compassion-oriented therapies; however, it highlights how our behaviours and postures can influence us including at the levels of our feeling, our doing, and our physiology—and this can occur almost regardless of how we are feeling (e.g., the video shows that people did not necessarily feel powerful or power-less before they put their bodies into a certain posture yet in the studies mentioned, the posture practice did have an effect). The same general concept applies to mindfulness practices and compassion practices—that when we practice, we are affected at many levels almost regardless of what we are feeling and this includes at the level of the brain (brain areas that are more active or less active as a result) and at the body.

The talk also reminded me of the instruction in compassion practices to not worry about whether you can feel a certain quality right now but rather to try to practice anyway. In the case of compassion-focused therapy I would add, it’s okay to work at it gently, a little bit at a time, and to work at cultivating feelings of safeness, especially when the fears and blocks to the experience of compassion are difficult and high.

Finally, I will also share something that an encouraging and courageous compassion-focused therapy instructor I have had said to those of us in his class (paraphrasing here), “When you practice, you cannot help but to be changed by it…”. It’s just what happens.