Self-Compassion Could Help Reduce Symptoms of Mental Illness

Time to silence that inner critic.

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
March 20, 2020

With all the anxiety and urgency in the air these days, it can be difficult to pause for a moment to make sure you’re treating yourself well. Maybe your usual self-care routine has been reduced to washing your hands constantly. Or perhaps your internal critic is chiding you for not using the extra time working from affords you to get started on that novel, brush up on your French, or learn how to play the saxophone. It’s time to cut yourself some slack. In fact, being hard on yourself might actually exacerbate your mental health issues. According to research from Oxford and Exeter universities, being kind to yourself may reduce symptoms related to mental illness.

The study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, found that when people participated in self-compassion exercises, it calmed the heart rate and essentially switched off their body’s fight-or-flight response. Not only did this make them feel better physically, the participants also reported that they were less stressed after the exercise. 

“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,” Hans Kirschner, a doctoral student who conducted the research at Exeter, said in a statement

Previous research has linked self-compassion to higher levels of well-being and better mental health, but until now it didn’t pinpoint how. “Our study is helping us understand the mechanism of how being kind to yourself when things go wrong could be beneficial in psychological treatments,” Dr. Anke Karl, Ph.D., an associate professor in the psychology department at the University of Exeter, said in a statement. “By switching off our threat response, we boost our immune systems and give ourselves the best chance of healing.”

The researchers hope their findings can be used to provide people additional coping strategies for conditions like depression and anxiety. “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,” co-author Willem Kuyken, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Oxford, said in a statement. “It introduces a different way of being and knowing that is quite transformative for many people.”

Unlike a lot of recently researched potential treatments for mental illnesses, practicing self-compassion is something that anyone can try without consulting a doctor — and it may be especially helpful during this difficult time.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.


Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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