Self-compassion promotes love and gratitude. These emotions can increase your level of life satisfaction, thus reducing stress and anxiety. In our daily routine lives, we tend to overlook ourselves to meet the expectations of people around us and finish our tasks. However, taking time to think kind thoughts about us and loved ones has psychological and physical benefits, new research suggests.
According to research from the Universities of Exeter and Oxford, self-compassion exercises reduce heart rate and turn off the body’s fear response. Previous research has demonstrated that the immune system is harmed by this threat response. The capacity to turn off this response, according to researchers, may reduce the risk of disease.
135 healthy University of Exeter students were split into five groups for the study, which was published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science. Each group’s participants listened to a unique set of audio instructions. In addition to asking participants to report their feelings, the team physically measured participants’ heart rates and sweat reactions. They were asked about their feelings of safety, likelihood of self-kindness, and interpersonal connections.
Feeling compassionate and connected with others lowers the heart rate
In addition to reporting greater sentiments of self-compassion and interpersonal connection, the two groups whose instructions encouraged self-kindness also displayed physical signs of relaxation and safety. Their heart rates decreased, and the intervals between heartbeats varied—a positive sign of a heart that is adaptable to circumstances. Additionally, they displayed less sweating.
The pulse rate and sweat response rose in response to instructions that triggered a critical inner voice, which is associated with feelings of threat and discomfort.
Being kind to yourself switches off the threat response and puts the body in safety mode
First author Dr Hans Kirschner, who conducted the research at Exeter, said: “These findings suggest that being kind to oneself switches off the threat response and puts the body in a state of safety and relaxation that is important for regeneration and healing.”
Lead researcher Dr Anke Karl, of the University of Exeter, said: “Previous research has found that self-compassion was related to higher levels of wellbeing and better mental health, but we didn’t know why.
“Our study is helping us understand the mechanism of how being kind to yourself when things go wrong could be beneficial in psychological treatments. Switching off our threat response boosts our immune systems and gives us the best chance of healing. We hope future research can use our method to investigate this in people with mental health problems such as recurrent depression.”
Self-focused loving-kindness exercise
A “compassionate body scan” and a “self-focused loving-kindness exercise” were two of the recordings that promoted self-compassion. During the former, participants were instructed to attend to their bodily sensations with an attitude of interest and calmness.
The recordings played for the three other groups were made to elicit a critical inner voice, produce a “positive but competitive and self-enhancing mode,” or simulate an emotionally neutral shopping setting.
The length of each audio recording was 11 minutes.
Self-compassion group showed a positive bodily response
Only those in the self-compassion groups demonstrated a positive bodily reaction, even though both the optimistic but competitive and self-compassion groups reported higher self-compassion and less self-criticism.
When compared to the groups listening to critical voice recordings, there was a decreased perspiration response and an average heart rate that slowed by two to three beats per minute. Increased heart rate variability, an indication of a healthy heart that can adjust to various situations, was also observed in the self-kindness groups.
Co-author Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, said: “These findings help us to understand further some of our clinical trials research findings, where we show that individuals with recurrent depression benefit particularly from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy when they learn to become more self-compassionate.
A transformative way of being
“My sense is that for people prone to depression, meeting their negative thoughts and feelings with compassion is a radically different way — that these thoughts are not facts.
“It introduces a different way of being and knowing that is quite transformative for many people.”
The scientists intend to continue their investigation by examining the physiological reactions in people who have recurrent depression.
The researchers emphasise that because the study was carried out on healthy participants, their conclusions cannot be generalised to depression sufferers. They did not look at the capability of directly repairing mood or distress, which is another crucial aspect of self-compassion. To answer these two open questions, more study is required.
Materials provided by the University of Exeter. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Hans Kirschner, Willem Kuyken, Kim Wright, Henrietta Roberts, Claire Brejcha, Anke Karl. Soothing Your Heart and Feeling Connected: A New Experimental Paradigm to Study the Benefits of Self-Compassion. Clinical Psychological Science, 2019; 216770261881243 DOI: 10.1177/2167702618812438
University of Exeter. “Being kind to yourself has mental and physical benefits.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 February 2019. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190206200344.htm>.
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