Using Compassion to Cope with Parkinson's Disease
Living with a chronic and progressive illness such as Parkinson’s disease can result in mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. Given the physical, emotional and spiritual challenges of Parkinson’s disease, it’s understandable that one may struggle. It may be that over time and the progression of illness, your regular self-talk turns to rumination and self-criticism. Perhaps feelings of shame may become more prevalent and it’s hard to cope with daily tasks that once seemed manageable. When working with clients who are living with PD and depression, I often integrate Compassion-Focused Therapy as a modality along with other evidence-based practices.
Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) is a third-wave cognitive behavioral therapy developed to target depression, anxiety, eating disorders, chronic shame, and anger issues. It’s based in evolutionary psychology and attachment theory and there’s a growing research base showing its effectiveness. It defines compassion as an awareness of the suffering of others and self and a commitment to try to relieve it. It and utilizes mindfulness, meditation, imagery work, and chair work. A primary target in CFT is helping clients build a compassionate self which they can use during periods of distress.1
When clients come in struggling with PD and also a strong inner critical voice, I begin with helping clients bring attention to their judgments in real time during the session. You can start to do this by gently noticing your thoughts. By paying attention to them with mindful awareness, you may notice judgments come in more often that you realize. Try to be accepting of this at first without trying to change them (that’s the next part!). It’s hard to change something that you’re not aware of which is why this is a crucial first step.
Qualities of compassion
Next, consider the qualities of a compassionate person. Perhaps they are qualities you see in others which you wish to emulate like kindness, presence, gentleness, courage and a steady voice tone. Maybe you can identify qualities that you already have in yourself that come up when you’re comforting a friend or family member. It’s okay if you can’t feel the qualities of compassion as you’re imagining them. It’s enough to, like an actor getting into a role, pretend you have these qualities.
Once you have built your compassionate self (it can take time!), start to apply it to yourself as you notice self-critical thoughts and strong negative emotions. Imagine in your mind’s eye what it would be like to hold space for the shame, self-criticism, or anger while applying gentle and courageous compassion. The goal here is not to get rid of the emotion, but to acknowledge the suffering and do something to alleviate it. If you get stuck here, imagine what you would say to a friend going through the same experience. It can often be easier to offer compassionate words and presence to others than to one’s self.
Compassion is radical
If you get stuck, that’s okay. This is a skill that gets stronger with practice. We live in a culture that can be highly critical and competitive. The very act of offering self-compassion is a radical act. This is a very brief intro to a rich therapy that can offer relief for depression and anxiety. There are excellent resources available including the Mindful Compassion website, as well as the services of a trained therapist.
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