‘Heart Sick’ – How Mindful Self Compassion Practices Help Reduce Stress and Fear

By Zoey Ryan

I was startled the other night to awaken experiencing crushing chest pain accompanied by arm and jaw pain. I quickly implemented my Cardiologist’s recommendations of ‘nitro spray and watchfully wait’ while acknowledging that light furniture moving and initiating a higher intensity exercise regime on the same day is not ideal.

Since experiencing a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) and Myocardial Infarction (heart attack) in 2008, I have been extremely careful with my health and particularly careful with my heart health. In turns out that I have an underlying chronic health condition of Fibromuscular Dysplasia (FMD) that puts me at higher risk of SCADs. Since 2008, I have experienced very few episodes of chest pain and so the pain the other night was pretty concerning.

The nitro spray helped to ease the chest pain which also alleviated my concern that a trip to the ER might be necessary.  I was left with trying to relax and return to sleep.

I suspect that anyone who has a heart attack has considered that one night they may fall asleep and never wake up. This type of anxiety becomes even more real when experiencing an event such as I have just described. To support relaxation, I utilized some of the Mindful Self Compassion practices I have learned and taught as a ‘Trained Mindful Self Compassion’ Teacher with the ‘Mindful Self Compassion Program‘ (MSC™), co-developed by Kristin Neff PhD and Christopher Germer PhD.

I used the practices of  ‘Soothing Touch and Affectionate Breathing’ combined with a short ‘Compassionate Body Scan’ and was able to fall back asleep.

Obviously, I am still here and while my heart feels bruised and sore, I am grateful for the reminder that I have physical limits. I certainly will listen to my body’s messages and ‘cool it’ on my desire to return to running as an exercise of choice … walking and hiking it is!

What I find fascinating about the practices of ‘mindfulness’ and ‘self-compassion’ is that while ‘mindfulness’ has long been acknowledged as a practice with benefits in stress reduction and relaxation, ‘self compassion’ has not been studied to the same extent.  This is changing as there is mounting interest by researchers in the independent effect of self compassion on heart rate variability for example. A recently published review article states that there is a ‘medium’ positive effect of compassion on heart rate variability (Di Bello et al, ‘The Compassionate Vagus’, Neuroscience & Behavioural Reviews, Vol. 116, 2020).

‘Self Compassion’ or learning to ‘treat yourself with the same kindness you would a good friend who is going through a tough time’ can become a way of life with education and practice.  Folks can have misgivings about self compassion and may feel it is selfish, self pitying or that they may ‘lose their edge’.  In fact, the reverse is true. With practice, Mindful Self Compassion practitioners find that they learn to motivate themselves with kindness, soothe themselves with gentleness and use forgiveness and the practice of mindfulness to work with ‘difficult’ emotions in a new way.

The ‘Soothing Touch, Affectionate Breathing and Compassionate Body Scan’ practices have a gentle, positive settling effect for me and soothe my sore heart. I encourage you to try these for yourself. I use MSC™ daily and find it incredibly helpful and nourishing.

For more information about how to do the ‘Soothing Touch, Affectionate Breathing or the Compassionate Body Scan’ practices, Chris and Kristin have published ‘The Mindful Self Compassion Workbook’, which is available through Amazon and which contains a variety of additional guided meditations and practices. Both Kristin and Christopher have written books about Mindful Self Compassion which are also excellent and available through Amazon.

Also, my fellow teacher, Dr. Georgina Robinson PhD and I are excited to be sharing the full 8 Week Mindful Self Compassion Program On-Line via ZOOM, staring Jan 19, 2021 in which we will offer these practices as part of the program. Please feel free to contact us or check out the 8 Week Mindful Self Compassion Page for more information and a full Registration Package.

Author: zoey