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Self-compassion a shield from slings and arrows of aging

Psychologist Russell Kolts, a professor at Eastern Washington

Psychologist Russell Kolts, a professor at Eastern Washington University, in his Spokane, Wash. Credit: TNS / Jesse Tinsley

Like a tool in a toolbox, applying acts of compassion as we age can help us cope with changes and alleviate anxieties.

But first, people need to move beyond misconceptions about compassion toward others and self, said Russell Kolts, an Eastern Washington University psychology professor. He researches and writes about compassion-based therapy for handling anger, fear and other strong emotions.

“I think people have this concept that compassion is soft and weak, when in reality, it’s very different,” Kolts said. “It’s really what you do when suffering shows up. It’s about how do you handle it when things go wrong or when you’re hurting, or you come into contact with that part of yourself you don’t like, in the case of self-compassion.”

While compassionate acts include kindness and support, many people are more prone to make those gestures for others. A term used in therapy called “mindful self-compassion” simply encourages thought toward acceptance of emotions and a little kindness toward self, he said.

“It asks the question, what do you do if you observe yourself struggling or suffering?” Kolts said. “Do you respond to yourself as you would someone you love or care about, or do you respond by criticizing yourself, or by distracting yourself?”

An Aging Mastery Program at Pullman Regional Hospital for residents in Washington state plans a class on mindful self-compassion while aging, for those 50 and older.

Self-compassion and mental resiliency fit into an overview on aging well because the program wants to offer people ways to cope and remain active as they age, said Noel Nicolai, the hospital’s education coordinator. “We really do want seniors to look at being resilient and be able to cope with life challenges,” she said. When people see the body starting to wear out, face retirement, or lose a loved one to death, Nicolai added, “Life isn’t done; it’s just different. It’s all a matter of perspective.”

Kolts echoed that perspective.

“Older adults face issues that the rest of us don’t have to,” he said. “There are a lot of unique stressors, like physical deterioration — not being able to count on your body the way you used to — transitioning out of a working life, and issues of identity around that,” Kolts said. “When you’re older, the world becomes more dangerous. If you fall down, you can break a hip.”

Even today’s technology can be disorienting and scary for older people, he said. Grief and loss are other factors. “A huge one is loss of social support when people you love and have been very close to your whole life begin to fall away.” Kolts said. “It can feel very lonely. We really evolved to feel safe in connection with other people.”

Compassion-focused therapy might sound like a new-age concept, but it considers how the human brain works, added Kolts, who is on sabbatical to finish a book. He said human brains evolved to help ancestors survive against real physical threats, but modern circumstances are very different, so the way the brain’s emotional systems work today can be tricky.

At any age, people tend to focus thinking and attention tightly onto a threat source, Kolts said. For those emotions in the aging equation — perhaps an aging parent having to move out of a familiar home — adult children can help ease fears with such ideas as helping create a layout in new living quarters that feels familiar.

The senior also should try to schedule a regular routine activity that’s predictable and comfortable. Adult children being present as much as possible can help ease the transition too, Kolts said. It might benefit to take a class to form new relationships, or return to a regular bridge game. “It’s important that we create room for our own emotional experiences rather than thinking ‘I shouldn’t be feeling that way,’ ” Kolts said. “That’s particularly hard for someone who doesn’t have social support . . . Although we feel uncomfortable, it’s our brain trying to protect ourselves from a threat,” he said. “It’s easy for us to keep that sense of being threatened going . . . when the feelings come up, rather than criticize yourself, just accept it and ask, ‘Given this is what I’m experiencing, what would be helpful?’ ”

Rebecca Bohn, a licensed mental health counselor in Spokane, Washington, often teaches on the mindful self-compassion topic. She defines the approach as nonjudgmental, observational, and “being present to whatever is rising physically, mentally, emotionally, and externally.”

She said that focus applies even as the body begins to have issues because of age, such as coping with painful arthritic knees. People can be more mindful of being kind to themselves, and to their bodies in these situations, as they avoid negative self-talk, Bohn said.

“As we age, of course there is more fearfulness, uncertainty about the future, health challenges, and we can feel that the body has let you down,” she said. “Mindful self-compassion is a re-friending of the body and of our self.” The approach means embracing acceptance and developing emotional resiliency toward changes, according to Bohn. Meditation and thinking more positively about yourself as you would of a friend are practices that help. It promotes a healthier lifestyle, she said.

“We actually start taking better care of our body,” she said. “It’s more of a mental acceptance of whatever we’re experiencing in the moment because some things we can’t change about our bodies. We can take classes and exercise, those are acts of self compassion, but sometimes we can’t change the things we don’t care for . . . As we age, there will be pain, but it’s how we approach the pain. The more we resist something, the more it increases suffering. When we can meet suffering with more acceptance, sympathy and kindness, then we experience greater emotional balance and well-being.”

Bohn offers to audiences a calming exercise focused on the present, called Hand-on-Heart: When you notice you’re under stress, take two to three deep, satisfying breaths. Gently place your hand over your heart, feeling the gentle pressure and warmth of your hand. Feel the natural rising and falling of your chest as you breathe in and as you breathe out. Linger with the feeling for as long as you like.

“Self-compassion is a great complement to the aging process,” Bohn said. “We can learn to be more accepting and kinder to ourselves during times of physical and emotional challenges as well as respond more effectively to the day-to-day challenges that we face as we age.”


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