Wednesday, April 18

The Compassionate Mind

In the past year when I have struggled I have briefly dipped my toe in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help change unhelpful thoughts and break the cycle of behaviour which ultimately spirals into feelings of acute distress and failure. When last week, I reached a falling apart point and realised enough was enough I started reading up again and finding some exercises to do at home to rationalise thoughts and reduce anxiety. One of the things I came across was something called the Compassionate Mind by Professor Paul Gilbert and Dr Michelle Cree. This has it's roots in CBT, and I found that the way it explained the workings of the brain resonated with me, and allowed myself to use compassion to shake off the feelings of failure, which ultimately is the idea. I have only the briefest of understandings of psychology and the biology of the brain, but found the way it talks about the primitive brain reactions with more modern thinking was useful into trying to understand how as a reasonably intelligent human being, you can be felled by pure emotion and allow reactions and feelings to run your everyday life, cutting you off.

The simple premise is that we have an "Old Brain" which uses primitive reactions, once designed for our safety, survival and thus evolution and is very emotion based, and a "New Brain" which uses more intelligence to process things including rationalising, reasoning, planning and turning things around. The new brain has ensured that humans have developed themselves and the world around us into the advanced civilisation it is now, but that rather than replace the old brain, the two run alongside each other.

"Our emotions and tendencies towards anger and anxiety, our desires to be loved, cared for and respected, or trying to avoid rejection and criticism, are all in-built aspects of our ‘old brain’. Unlike other animals that primarily live a day-to-day existence, we have since and separately developed a sense of self. We can also imagine and plan the sort of life we would like for ourselves. However, on the flip side we can also look back with regret and dwell on unhappy times. These new abilities are part of the new brain/mind and they utilise our attention, imagination, thought and reasoning abilities."

Of course the difficulty in managing two halves of a mind, is that sometimes one overpowers the other. This is more common with the negative emotions and we can become swamped by anger, anxiety and fear. Due to the adrenaline these generate, we can become in a highly unsettled state quickly and feel very out of control. The flood of feeling can seem like it cuts us off not just from our own thinking but the rest of the world. I personally have found this useful, and also to think that if this can happen in the mind, then we can also turn it around in the mind. Physical symptoms like lack of concentration, butterflies and knots in the stomach and exhaustion should all decrease and normalise once the mind is balanced again. The part I like is as well as using CBT techniques to reason and turn around negative cycles of thought into positive forward thinking, it teaches that we should be kind to ourselves. It is not just saying 'X makes me fearful' but 'X makes me fearful but that is OK.'

"The important thing to remember is that we did not choose to have a brain like this. It is easy to become angry or anxious, and these emotions can take hold of our thinking. So we also need to take on board that much of what goes on in our minds is not our fault. It’s not our fault precisely because it is through millions of years of evolution that these emotions and powerful desires  have all developed, and we did not choose this to happen.
A key issue is to stop blaming ourselves for the way we feel or react – to realise that this is the working of the brain that has been designed for us, but we can take more responsibility for our minds we can learn to navigate our canoe along that river of desires, disappointments, passions or emotions. We also have a great ability for enjoyment and happiness, for caring and peacefulness, and these are part of our brains' design too."

This last bit sums up what I want for the future. What I know I can manage. It is perfectly possible to harness the out-of-control emotions, but if it is a slower process than hoped that will be OK too. It is the getting there in the end that counts, not the time it took.

Quotes taken from the Compassionate Mind programme as featured on the Netmums website contained in the link at the beginning.


  1. A very good post and one which I have a bit off an interest too having had a bit of CBT over the years, particularly when I was receiving treatment for the PTSD. What you have written makes perfect sense and then end of your post brings to mind what my psychologist said to me: that it will be a lifetime's work in progress. I wish you well with the journey :)

    1. Thank you! I found your past posts especially about your journey with PTSD a great comfort in not feeling generally bananas. I found them first shortly after NICU and then re-read them recently when I have a bit of a breakdown again. Glad you have recovered now/mostly and Babyzoid is flourishing! x

  2. Great post Amy mouse, it's really got me thinking!

  3. This was really interesting. I dabbled a bit with CBT in the past and found it the best of all therapies (especially after one therapist suggest I read Freud!). Glad you (like me) are thriving/surviving from day-to-day. Though we are all different it's great that we can reach out to one another in one way shape or form :-) *hugs* xx