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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Rest – The Other Fitness Requirement

The majority of these blog posts are focussed on the benefits of movement and the many problems associated with lack thereof.  This weekend as the powers that be attempt (futilely, I might add)  to control the universe by getting us all to adjust our clocks, it has occurred to me that sleep and rest are often overlooked aspects of fitness that can be just as important as exercise.  Recently I listened to an interview with Dr. Kirk Parsley, former Navy SEAL and current sleep guru, about how chronic sleep deprivation is leading Americans to all kinds of illness.  Dr. Parsley speaks about the pervasive myths in our culture that sleep is for the weak.  He emphasizes what he calls the “four pillars of health: Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise, Stress control”.  If any one of the four is ignored or minimized our health will suffer.  Despite this, we continue to celebrate people who claim to sleep 4 hours per night and still achieve what appears to be success.

In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers insufficient sleep to be a public health problem.   In addition to nodding off while driving, “persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity, as well as from cancer, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity.”  Yikes!  For those of us – myself included – who take pains to eat right and exercise regularly, it can be a huge wake-up call to realize that short-changing sleep might be just as detrimental to health as eating lots of donuts.

A related connection that comes to mind is the additional need for simple rest.  Those of us who exercise regularly may not realize that muscle gains are made during rest periods, not work periods.  That’s why strength trainers advise their practitioners to work different muscles each day instead of doing the same routine daily.   We are also told to limit particularly stressful workouts to once or twice per week.  Some stress is good as it trains the body to handle the load.  But muscles need time to adapt to the changes.  Many of us make the mistake of overtaxing our muscles without allowing them sufficient time to recover.  Even when advised to start slowly and increase gradually, we think this advice doesn’t apply to us.  I’m the first to admit to being guilty on that count.  It has taken many years and lots of mistakes to learn that it isn’t worth pushing the envelope too strongly.   Injury or illness is a high price to pay.  Still it takes practice and constant reminders to keep that message up front.

Some time ago I read the book “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor.  Dr. Taylor is a brain research scientist who suffered a stroke.  Due to her knowledge of how the brain works, she was able to retain a memory of what was transpiring as she experienced the stroke.  The book is about what she learned during that time and her subsequent recovery.  There are many lessons learned from this book, but among them was her emphasis on how important sleep was to her recovery.  Throughout the book she emphasizes the healing powers of sleep.  During my health challenges over the past few years I’ve recalled her words and agree that sleep and rest are as important to healing as any medication.

It’s not easy to keep that thought up front, though.  I’m also well aware that many people have all kinds of trouble sleeping well.  A huge pharmaceutical industry has arisen to address the problem.  There are all sorts of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that getting more sleep is not as simple as it sounds.  Our 24/7 culture is no help either.  Recently I heard the term “time-bullied” referring to how most of us feel like the there is never enough time to do all the things we feel the need to do.  But we sacrifice sleep at our peril.  Like the other 3 “pillars of health”, we need to find a balance, a way to give each of the pillars its due.  Maybe it means a bit more moderation in all things.  Hmmm. . . Where have we heard that concept before?  Simple advice yet so hard to achieve.

Still anyone who has experienced any kind of health challenge knows that life is short.  No matter how well we try to care for ourselves, its length is uncertain.  The tendency to want to maximize our time on earth can be overwhelming.  But there are benefits to being the best we can be for as long as we can manage that.  Quality of life is just as important as length, if not moreso. This weekend we were given an extra hour.  Of course, it will be taken away from us in the Spring, but we can deal with that when we get there.  For now, I hope you all used that extra hour to get a little more sleep.  I know I did.  And I still feel like I need a nap.  So I think I’ll stop here and take one!