Taking some time to think kind thoughts about yourself and loved ones has psychological and physical benefits, according to a new U.K. study.
Investigators at the Universities of Exeter and Oxford discovered taking part in self-compassion exercises can ease the body’s threat response, lowering heart rate and bolstering the immune system.
“Previous research has found that self-compassion was related to higher levels of well-being and better mental health, but we didn’t know why,” said researcher Dr. Anke Karl.
“Our study is helping us understand the mechanism of how being kind to yourself when things go wrong could be beneficial in psychological treatments. By switching off our threat response, we boost our immune systems and give ourselves the best chance of healing.
The study appears in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
The study was conducted at Exeter by Karl and Dr. Hans Kirschner. Kirschner said the findings suggest 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.
The researchers said the threat system comprises increased heart rate and sweating, release of the stress hormone cortisol and over-activity of the amygdala, an integral part of the brain’s emotional network. And a persistent threat response¬† can impair the immune system.
In the new study 135 healthy University of Exeter students were divided into five groups. Members of each group heard a different set of audio instructions. Researchers then took physical measurements of heart rate and sweat response, and asked participants to report how they were feeling.
Participants were asked questions on how safe they felt, how likely they were to be kind to themselves and how connected they felt to others.
The two groups whose instructions encouraged them to be kind to themselves not only reported feeling more self-compassion and connection with others, but also showed a bodily response consistent with feelings of relaxation and safety.
Their heart rates dropped and heart rate variability improved, a healthy sign of a heart that can respond flexibly to situations. They also showed lower sweat response.
Meanwhile, instructions that induced a critical inner voice led to an increased heart rate and a higher sweat response, consistent with feelings of threat and distress.
The recordings that encouraged self-compassion were a “compassionate body scan” in which people were guided to attend to bodily sensations with an attitude of interest and calmness; and a “self-focused loving kindness exercise” in which they directed kindness and soothing thoughts to a loved one and themselves.
The three other groups listened to recordings designed to induce a critical inner voice, put them into a “positive but competitive and self-enhancing mode,” or an emotionally neutral shopping scenario.
All the audio recordings were 11 minutes long.
While people in both the self-compassion and positive but competitive groups reported greater self-compassion and decreased self-criticism, only the self-compassion groups showed the positive bodily response.
Co-author Willem Kuyken, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, said: “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.
“My sense is that for people prone to depression, meeting their negative thoughts and feelings with compassion is a radically different way.”
The researchers stressed that the study was conducted in healthy people, so their findings do not mean that people with depression would experience the same improvements from one-off exercises.
Moreover, they did not investigate another important feature of self-compassion, the ability to directly repair mood or distress. Further research is necessary to address these two open points.
Source: University of Exeter