More Reasons for Self-Compassion

Does kindness matter?  This simple question is central to a recent article in Diabetes Spectrum highlighting research revealing the health benefits of self-compassion.  According to the article “Self-compassion is defined as the practice of treating oneself with kindness, care, and concern in the face of negative events.”  The article goes on to state that “self-criticism, a common consequence of self-care failure . . . can be seen as the opposite of self-compassion”.  Although this article focuses on the effects of self-compassion and its absence on diabetes patients in particular, it is clear that these health concerns can be more broadly generalized.  The article cites “A series of experimental studies suggest[ing] that quantifiable physiological and neurological processes underlie the experience of self-compassion.”  Furthermore, “consistent evidence suggests that self-compassion is related to physical and psychological health”.  As an example, “in a study [see citation below]* in patients with obesity and pain problems, self-compassion predicted lower negative affect, higher positive affect, more adaptive pain coping, higher pain self-efficacy, and lower pain catastrophizing.”

Not surprisingly, the opposite has also been shown to be true.  For example, ” the opposites of self-compassion, including self criticism, self-hate, self-judgment, and negative perfectionism, have been linked to greater psychological distress, including depression.”  The article is full of additional confirmations, citations and examples of the positive health effects, both physical and psychological, of self-compassion and the related negative consequences of its deficiency.

An article in the Washington Post that refers to this research also cites a book by Kristin Neff titled “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself”.  In it, the author speaks of the three elements of self-compassion:

  • Self-kindness – the ability to be understanding with yourself rather than judgmental or harshly critical;
  • Common humanity – the recognition that none of us is perfect and all of us make mistakes, thus viewing ourselves as part of the human experience;
  • Mindfulness – the ability to pay attention to the present moment, neither dwelling on the past nor excessively worrying about the future.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may recognize these themes.  In fact, a very recent post discusses the benefits of self-care which are obviously closely related to self-compassion.  The articles referred to here also talk about the ways in which we sabotage ourselves.  For example, some of us may believe that being kind to ourselves needs to be secondary to taking care of others.  Think about that:  how can you give others something you are unwilling to give to yourself?  Furthermore, the consequences of denying ourselves the compassion that we wish to share with others can be pretty dire.   From the Washington Post article: “The opposite of self-compassion is emotional reactivity, isolation, self-judgment and unhealthy perfectionism, all of which have been linked to depression, stress and reduced quality of life.”

These ideas are echoed in an article in Health Psychology Open.  It states that “Substantial evidence supports the idea that self-compassion
can reduce perceived stress”.   Research findings show that  “people who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better — they have less of a physical stress response when they are stuck in traffic, have an argument with their spouse or don’t get that job offer — and they spend less time reactivating stressful events by dwelling on them.”  Since chronic stress has direct effects on all aspects of our health, this is no small thing.  Additional research is also cited in this article indicating that people with higher levels of self-compassion are more likely to start and adhere to healthy behaviors which further enhances the benefits.  In other words, self-compassion promotes better health which contributes to better feelings about oneself which enables more self-compassion.  Conversely, negative self-care leads to poorer health which takes one’s self-image in a downhill spiral in the opposite direction.

So next time you’re tempted to run yourself down for any reason, it might be worth remembering that berating yourself may be more than just a temporary mood darkener.  It just might have more serious negative health ramifications that could be avoided with a little kindness.  Isn’t that simple step worth the effort?  Try noticing those negative thoughts.  Maybe you can remind yourself that “to err is human, to forgive, divine”.  Our world would be a safer and healthier place if we all practiced a little more kindness.  You can start that practice with yourself.  If you want to treat other people well and you want other people to treat you well, you can set an example by treating yourself well, too.  Your health care practitioners will applaud!

 

* Wren A, Somers T, Wright M, Goetz M, Leary M, Fras A. Self-compassion in patients with persistent musculoskeletal pain: relationship of self-compassion to adjustment to persistent pain. J Pain Symptom Manage 2012;43:759–770

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Coping Strategies

Many of us are feeling the effects to varying degrees of chronic stress.  Given our 24/7 news cycle which rarely has anything positive to offer, it’s not surprising that rates of anxiety have been increasing.  We seem to be fed a constant diet of fear.  If only this or that group was eliminated from our lives all would be well and we would be safe.  Sadly, reality just doesn’t work that way.  Life is full of problems and this is true for every life.  I would challenge anyone reading this to examine their own life and tell me that they have never had cause for anxiety, fear or just plain suffering.  Some of us like to think there was mythical time in the past when life was somehow simpler and easier.  But if you are truly honest, would you really want to go back to that time?  Was it really as great as your hindsight suggests?  And even if it was – for you anyway – the fact is time only moves in one direction.  We can’t go back.  We can only accept what is right now and move on from there.  In the complex world of today there are no easy answers.  Pointing fingers might make us feel good but it solves nothing.

So what is a person to do when faced with our daily bombardment of negativity.  One possibility is to try and ignore it.  Turn off the TV and the computer.  Avoid newspapers, magazines and radio.  Great idea!  But just as we look between our fingers at horror movies, few of us can really stay away from current events for long.  And sometimes it’s not national issues that get to us but something closer to home, like family or neighborhood discord that’s not so easily avoidable.

Another strategy is to pick a problem and find some way to address it with your own time, money and/or expertise.  This can be especially effective at a local level where you can sometimes actually see results from your efforts.  Or even if the results you seek extend beyond your view, you can at least feel like you’re contributing to a potential solution.  Helping others is widely prescribed as an antidote to stress and even depression.  It certainly beats complaining and blaming.

Still the feeling of helplessness in the face of any problem – illness, life changes, loss – can cause stress.  When you’re in the middle of a crisis it can be difficult to see clearly or to remember that all things change and nothing lasts forever.  Although it may seem simplistic, sometimes even  a momentary distraction can be helpful.

One very simple example is breathing.  There is actually science behind the calming power of breathing.  A recent article in the journal Science describes the “rhythmic activity of a cluster of neurons in the brainstem [that] initiates breathing . . . [and] has a direct and dramatic influence on higher-order brain function.”  The article states that “Slow, controlled breathing has been used for centuries to promote mental calming, and it is used clinically to suppress excessive arousal such as panic attacks.”  This study found a physiological and neural relationship between deep breaths and peaceful feeling.  According to an article in Yoga Basics which references this study:

“These findings suggest that the rhythm of our breathing directly relates to our higher-level brain activity.  For example, short, rapid breathing warns the brain that we may be in a stressful situation. . . .In contrast, deep breathing and long sighs encourage the opposite response. These tell our brain that we are safe”

There’s a key – the word “safe”. When we are fearful it is usually because we feel unsafe.  If we can convince our brains that we really are safe, a major cause of stress can be relieved.  A simple practice like deep breathing with a focus on long exhales can go a long way towards achieving that goal.  Now we even have scientific evidence that this reaction is real.  What’s even better is the knowledge that breath is always available.  We take it for granted and often don’t even notice it, but as long as we are alive, we are capable of breathing.  For some of us, breathing is obstructed and difficult.  But to the extent that we are capable of slow, deep breaths, this can be a good coping strategy when feeling stressed.

Another potential fear and stress-reducing practice is to create a gratitude list.  We’ve all heard of these, but how often do you actually remember all the positive things in your life?  Especially when you feel surrounded by a huge seemingly insurmountable problem.  If you can’t think of anything positive, try reading this article from the Chopra Center.  Even the most hard-core fear monger is bound to find something in this list to be grateful for.  Somewhere (unfortunately I don’t remember where) I read a suggestion that when feeling fearful or just overwhelmed to look around you and simply name everything you see.  The goal of this exercise is to bring you into the present moment.  Often what we fear is something from the past or something that might happen in the future but hasn’t happened yet, and, in fact, may never happen.  If we come back to the present moment it will keep us from regretting something we can’t change or anticipating something that may never happen.

Of course, no coping strategy works if you forget to do it.  And all interventions can be easily overlooked during a crisis even for the most stable and centered of us.  But when things seem at their bleakest, sometimes the only thing you can do is find a way to cope.  A little relief might help you to get to through the crisis.  And then maybe next time you’ll remember the practice that helped.  As alway, practice is the key.  The more we practice, the better we get.