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Give yourself a Valentine’s Day treat: self-compassion

photo of hand held up to mirror to create heart shape
This isn’t the first study to suggest that self-compassion is associated with higher levels of well-being and mental health.

It’s Valentine’s Day — a day when we’re supposed to be especially kind to those we love.

But you may want to take some time today to think kind thoughts about yourself as well. Recently published research has found that doing just 10 minutes or so of self-compassionate mental exercises can produce healthful physiological responses, such as a lowered heart rate.

This isn’t the first study to suggest that self-compassion — defined in the study as “being kind to one’s self and being able to use self-reassurance and soothing in time of adversity” — is associated with higher levels of well-being and mental health. But this research does offer new insights into the possible reasons for that association.

“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,” says Hans Kirschner, the study’s lead author and a postgraduate researcher at the University of Exeter in Great Britain, in a released statement.

Kirschner and his co-authors believe this research may lead to a better understanding of how certain forms of cognitive therapy can help people with recurrent depression.

The study was published earlier this month in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

How the study was done

For the study, the researchers recruited 135 healthy undergraduate students, who were then divided into five groups. Each group was asked to listen to an 11-minute audiotape while their heart rate and sweat response (how much they were perspiring) was measured. The participants also answered questions about how safe they felt, how kind they felt toward themselves and how connected they felt to others.

As described in the study, one of the audiotapes guided students “to direct kind and compassionate attention to their body sensations, starting from the top of the head and going down to the feet.” Another guided the students to “direct friendly wishes toward a person” they “felt a natural sense of warmth toward” and then to send themselves the same friendly wishes.

A third tape — the “self-rumination” condition — had students dwell on a situation in their past that they had not managed as well as they had wished or on something they hadn’t achieved. The fourth tape — the “control” condition — simply guided the students through a shopping experience in a supermarket.

The final tape — the “positive excitement” condition — asked students to think about certain aspects of a positive event or situation in their lives.

Key findings

The study found that both of the self-compassion tapes induced in the students greater feelings of self-kindness and connection to others. Those tapes also led to physiological responses consistent with feelings of safety and relaxation — specifically, a lower heart rate and a decreased sweat response.

Interestingly, the “positive excitement” condition also caused students to feel more positive and kind toward themselves, but those students did not experience any of the positive physiological responses.

By contrast, the self-rumination tape led to an increased heart rate and more sweating. In addition, after listening to that tape, students were more likely to be self-critical — and less likely to express feelings of self-compassion.

Limitations and implications

All the study’s participants were students, and none had a mental health condition. The findings may not be applicable to more demographically diverse groups or to those with depression or anxiety.

And the study looked at only two physiological aspects of the threat response.

Still, the study’s findings are provocative, particularly given how common depression and anxiety is today. About 8 percent of American adults aged 20 and older experience depression in any given two-week period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our study is helping us understand the mechanism of how being kind to yourself when things go wrong could be beneficial in psychological treatments,” said Anke Karl, one of the co-authors and a clinical psychologist at the University of Exeter, in a statement. “By switching off our threat response, we boost our immune systems and give ourselves the best chance of healing.”

“These findings help us to further understand 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,” adds Willem Kuyken, a clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford who also worked on the study.

“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,” he adds. “It introduces a different way of being and knowing that is quite transformative for many people.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on the Clinical Psychological Science website.

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