Archives for November 2020

Study of 80 Veterans Shows that MSC is a Valuable Addition to Medical Pain Management Strategies

When responding to pain, two of the most common options to consider are prescription medications or talk therapy. Although these resources can be healing and supportive for many people encountering difficulties, they are not the only ways to learn how to cope with physical and/or emotional pain. Given that Veterans have higher rates of chronic conditions and severe pain compared to the general population (Eibner et al., 2016; Nahin, 2017), it is necessary to understand how to support their health and wellbeing. 

For the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there is a current transition to focusing on Veterans’ Whole Health, which is a more holistic approach to healthcare that honors the interconnection of physical, mental, emotional, and social wellness. This is a shift from “What’s the matter with you?” to “What matters to you?”, which is a powerful framework that allows Veterans to express their values, needs, and goals to inform and direct their health plan. Recent research by Dr. Greg Serpa and colleagues (2020) suggests that the Mindful Self-Compassion program is a promising way to support Veterans’ psychological and physical health that is in alignment with the Whole Health approach and can transform their lives for the better.

In this study, researchers explored the effects of the 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) program for Veterans facing a range of physical and mental ailments (Serpa et al., 2020). Data was collected from 12 MSC programs conducted within the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Healthcare System. In the total group of 80 Veterans, comprising men and women from a range of races/ethnicities, 96% of participants indicated having a positive experience of the intervention. Most Veterans (74%) completed the program and experienced improved emotional and mental wellbeing. In particular, they had increases in self-compassion, happiness, and satisfaction with their social role, and decreases in depression, anxiety, and fatigue. No differences were observed between men and women, suggesting that MSC was equally beneficial for both male and female Veterans.

After learning mindfulness and self-compassion, the Veterans in this study experienced fewer interferences with their activities due to pain. In fact, they reported significant reductions in use of pain medications. Lead researcher and MSC teacher, Serpa shares his surprise and enthusiasm for this remarkable finding.

“We never discussed decreasing or changing medication use in the curriculum. It appears, however, that teaching Veterans to meet their suffering with a kind heart, had an impact on medication use.

Our treatment system has medicalized pain management and then blamed and marginalized those who suffer for seeking the very thing our system has trained them to see as their best path for relief. Humans have used compassion to alleviate suffering for millennia. Isn’t it time to support those who are suffering with compassion training?”

Serpa further reflects on the importance of being able to help Veterans “meet their suffering with kindness and grace.” Self-compassion is often misconstrued as “too soft” he says, but through his research he has witnessed Veterans leave the program feeling profound shifts in their life. He shares a response from one Veteran who told him through tears, “Doc, you didn’t recognize this for what it was because you didn’t need it. Look at me. Look at my life now. I really needed this. I wouldn’t make it without this.”

Similarly, feedback from this study illustrates participants’ appreciation for the resources and skills MSC taught them. For example, one person shared, “This class has changed my life forever. Everyone I come in contact with notices the peace, calm and compassion I share with the world.”

It seems that giving Veterans the opportunity to cultivate a compassionate relationship with themselves provided them with a healthier way to relate to their pain, which may have increased their capacity to experience more fulfillment and joy in their lives. One participant shared about how this class has “given [them] the tools to help get unstuck and move forward in challenging times.” Serpa and his colleagues identify the need to conduct further research to strengthen their compelling findings by including a comparison group; however, based on the self-report surveys and qualitative feedback, the data appears to clearly demonstrate the value of offering MSC to Veterans to enhance their health and enrich their lives.

Steadying Ourselves with Daily G.L.A.D.S. Practice

“Existence will rush to fill us and overwhelm us if we don’t meet the outer world with an inner life.”

-Mark Nepo

In a world struggling under the burden of collective doubt and fear, many of us have been forced to question our long-held assumptions about how the world works. How can we steady ourselves in all this uncertainty?

Our inner teacher remains stable and clear, regardless of what’s swirling in the world outside of us, so it’s critical to keep the lines of communication open. In a compassionate life, being in frequent contact with our wise inner guide leads us toward genuine wellbeing. And this, of course, leads to the wellbeing of the collective. 

Still, the competing noise of the world can distract us. So can fear, which brings about the tunnel vision that keeps us from seeing the fullness of our experience. Given these conditions, how do we stay in daily connection with what matters most to us? Whether it’s immersion in nature, prayer, lovemaking, art- or music-making, athletics/movement, meditation … they all walk us toward the infinite, wise, and stable territory within. It’s the most natural thing in the world. And yet, we drift.

As one antidote to the drift some of us may be experiencing, I’d like to offer a daily practice I developed called G.L.A.D.S. It’s a way to intentionally turn us back toward our own inner knowing, and it invites us to expand our lens of awareness to include what is going well in our lives. It also reminds us that even within the upheaval we may be experiencing, we can make a difference. This is because we are listening to ourselves and to our lives. We know who we are, what we need, what we’re willing to stand for, and all of those whose efforts contributed to what is good our lives. 

How G.L.A.D.S. works:

Find a quiet time when you can reflect on the day and contemplate G.L.A.D.S. (below). Journal your heartfelt responses, being sure to acknowledge any emotions or insights that arise, letting the good stuff sink in and holding the difficulties with kindness. 

Download/Print Your Practice Companion

G – Gratitude

For what are you grateful, and WHY? Be specific. Pause and let it sink in, as best you can. If you find yourself challenged by this, consider the causes and conditions that had to line up perfectly to allow you to be sitting here in this moment.

L – Let Go, Release

Is there a gracious “no” do you need to say to someone else so that you can say “yes” to that which moves you in the direction of wellbeing? Alternatively, what is something from today that you would like to let go of? Can you name it, briefly give it the attention that it is asking for, then release it? 

A – Appreciate and Acknowledge

As a way to offset negativity bias, what’s something you can appreciate and acknowledge about yourself today? Do so. Breathe it in. If you are able to open to this good thing, let it nourish you.

D – Devotion to practice

Did you meditate or do your preferred practice today? Have you stood by your own side today, or did you leave yourself behind? How have you loved yourself up today?

S – Service

The benefits of our self-compassion practice extend beyond ourselves. In what way did the fruits of your practice support you in serving someone (or something) else today?

I encourage the use of this tool for about two weeks during periods when you’re feeling lost, overwhelmed, or disconnected from your own inner wisdom. Amidst all of the noise of daily life, a period of daily G.L.A.D.S. practice calls your attention back to what is most important. And from this place of clear seeing, you’ll have greater capacity to hold whatever arises in your life and in a world that needs your wisdom and steadiness.