Self-compassion is a state of mind in which we treat ourselves kindly and non-judgmentally and offer ourselves soothing words and gestures. A number of research studies have linked self-compassion to better mental health and quality of life, and taking better care of yourself (e.g., by exercising more). By contrast, lower levels of self-compassion have been linked to post-traumatic stress and depression . Compassion meditations have been shown to improve mood and increase feelings of warmth and social connectedness. A new experimental study by researchers in England and Germany published in the journal Psychological Science studied whether brief self-compassion practices could soothe physiological indicators of stress and induce a state of safety and connectedness along with a positive view of the self. This study expanded on previous research by comparing self-compassion inductions with exercises that created either other positive states (excitement) or negative states (rumination).
The researchers thought that self-compassion would exert its protective effects by stimulating emotion systems associated with soothing, contentment, openness , the desire to connect and secure attachment with self and others. According to a theory proposed by Gilbert, activating the “soothing and contentment system” should down-regulate the "drive system" associated with reward, excitement, competition , and achievement, and negative emotion systems associated with threat and arousal.
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The study methodology
Healthy young adult volunteers were assigned randomly to one of the five conditions:
1. Kindness Meditation for the Self: Directing warmth and kindness to oneself
2. Compassionate Body Scan: Mentally moving through the body exploring sensations with an attitude of openness and non-judgment
3. Positive-Excitement: Thinking about a positive event or situation in which they were achieving something important
4. Rumination: Thinking about a situation they had not managed as they wanted to
5. Neutral Control Condition:Routine supermarket shopping script
The researchers measured participants’ states of mind by asking them questions about how securely attached, loved and connected they felt, how compassionate they felt towards themselves, how self-critical they felt, and how energized they felt. They measured stress and stress reduction using physiological measures including heart rate, skin conductance (a measure of sweating) and heart rate variability (HRV). Previous studies have shown that higher HRV (indicating a more variable heart-rate vs a heart-rate that stays at the same level over time) is an indicator of the ability to successfully regulate emotions and a measure of good physical and psychological health.
Results of the study were mostly as predicted. Both self-compassion exercises led to increased self-compassion, reduced self-criticism, and higher levels of emotions associated with wanting to bond and connect. Unexpectedly, the positive-excitement condition also increased self-compassion. The rumination condition decreased self-compassion, increased self-criticism, and reduced the desire to connect, while the neutral condition did not lead to any changes in these states.
When it came to physiological measures of stress and arousal, the two self-compassion conditions were more distinct from the positive-excitement condition. Both self-compassion conditions uniquely reduced heart rate and skin conductance and increased HRV whereas the other conditions did not. This pattern of reduced arousal is an index of successful self-soothing and emotion regulation .
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The researchers also found some partial evidence that the reductions in physiological arousal and stress preceded the experiences of safety and connection. This issue of timing needs to be studied more in future research. It may be that we find it difficult to feel soothed, open, and connected when our bodies are in a state of threat and heightened arousal. Down-regulating the physiological systems that get activated when we are threatened or challenged may create room for feelings of safety and belonging to emerge. If this is true, it would have implications for leadership , management, education , parenting and relationships .
There were some limitations to this study, specifically the use of healthy individuals and inductions when participants were not stressed . We don’t yet know if the same effects would occur in people who have mental health diagnoses, or if self-compassion induction is effective when you are feeling super-stressed.
In summary, this research adds to the literature on self-compassion by showing effects on both mind and body in the context of a controlled, experimental study. These types of studies can most powerfully prove that self-compassion inductions actually caused the effects. Results were consistent with theories of emotion that suggest a positive state of “soothing and contentment” is physiologically distinct from other positive states involving drive, challenge and excitement and from negative emotional states of threat and self-criticism.
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