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Give Yourself a Dose of Self-Compassion and Reduce Your Stress

February 5, 2019 by Etta Hornsteiner in Care Management, Crisis Intervention, For Individuals, For Professionals, Guardianship, Health and Wellness, Intellectual Disability, Mental Illness, Power of Attorney, Special Needs Care

older woman with open arms showing self-compassion

Do you speak to yourself as you would to a friend? Or are you as kind to yourself as you are to a friend? According to one of the leading experts in self-compassion, Kristin Neff, self-compassion is showing yourself kindness and care the same way you would to a friend in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. When practiced regularly, self-compassion impacts your health and well-being which reduces stress.

Kristin Neff believes that there are three aspects of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.

How self-kindness leads to less stress

Pain is a part of life. You can create further stress by how you speak to yourself during times of pain. Your inner critic can be hard on yourself and soft on others. In other words, you may offer a friend loving-kindness words when they are emotionally down, but you may tell yourself to “suck it up and keep trucking.” This dichotomy is not surprising. People tend to be more critical of themselves and thus judgmental. Such behavior only stresses the body more as the negative self-talk—the inner critic—causes the brain to release the stress hormone cortisol into the blood.

This negativity wreaks havoc on the body. Schenck and Churchill, authors of Healers, state that “stress can increase the time needed to heal a wound.”  Therefore, what you think, feel, and do matter. If you are sick, going through a loss, or through a change in general, your thoughts and emotions count. The body (including the brain and heart) recognizes routines and reactions which are mediated through pathways that move from thought to the neural networks of the brain and into the rest of the body. Undoubtedly, your mental state affects physiological processes. Thoughts and attitudes bring changes to the body.

Instead of allowing your inner critic to become your adversary, turn your inner critic into an ally. Neff et al. constructed a short-term intervention technique where they showed participants how to recognize the voice of the critic and the voice of the ally. The participants were asked to think of a time when they were self-critical. They were then coached by a therapist to distinguish between the critic’s and the ally’s voices. At the end of the study, the participants were less critical of themselves. They also experienced less depression, rumination, thought suppression, and anxiety.

With practice you can train yourself to be more compassionate toward yourself. This behavior involves restructuring or reframing your thoughts. For example, instead of thinking, “That’s just the way I am,” reframe the thought and say, “I usually tend to respond by….” Instead of thinking, “I’m broken,” try to reframe the thought by saying, “I’m healing” or “I’m complete just as I am and continually growing.”

Though some people express more self-compassion than others, still self-compassion is a habit that is cultivated.

How understanding our common humanity can lead to less stress

We humans tend to think when we are suffering that no one else is going through what we are going through. You may feel you suffer alone, but suffering is a shared human experience.   When you feel alone, you feel disconnected from the rest of humanity. This lack of connectivity has devastating effects on your health and well-being. The feeling of being alone can lead to isolation, which can put more stress on the body. We are hardwired to connect. “When we are cut off from others, these neural pathways suffer. The result is a neurological cascade that results in chronic irritability and anger, depression, addiction, and chronic physical illness,” write Banks and Hirschman, authors of Wired to Connect.

Realizing your shared human experience inclines you to seek help, advice, comfort, and support from parents, friends, professionals, and spiritual figures. However, the jury is still out on this. Some findings suggest that self-compassion is not related to support from other people; but this set of data is very thin.

Whether you are a high self-compassionate or low self-compassionate person, Allen and Leary suggest you may benefit from the indirect, implied support provided by the realization that other people have problems too. The proverb misery loves company may not be far from the truth. Your problem may not be as unique as you think; so take comfort in knowing you are not alone.

How mindfulness can lead to less stress

Being mindful puts you in touch with your feelings without judging them as good or bad. It is in acknowledging their presence that you can address your feelings. You are not your feelings and you are not your thoughts. Mindfulness helps you to observe the thoughts and emotions without engaging with them. It is difficult to offer yourself compassion if you are suppressing, avoiding, or unaware of your emotions or thoughts

Acceptance, therefore, is a part of mindfulness. You acknowledge and accept your emotions since they are already there. It is this acceptance which helps to reduce the suffering; for emotions are such that the more you ignore them, the more they cry out. Hilary Jacobs Hendela in an article published in the Times online magazine explains:

When the mind thwarts the flow of emotions because they are too overwhelming or too conflicting, it puts stress on the mind and the body, creating psychological distress and symptoms. Emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental ills, but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.

When the body is stressed, it goes through physiological changes. Breathing, for instance, becomes shallow. Because mindfulness involves being aware of your breath, it generates a relaxation response, and the heart and breath rate decrease.

By cultivating a practice of mindfulness meditation, negative ways of speaking to yourself can be reduced. Guided meditations, such as loving kindness meditations, can help create new neuro pathways in the brain. “Current research shows that although negative experiences are stored immediately and are rapidly available for recall, positive experiences are typically registered through standard memory systems and need to be held in consciousness for 10 to 20 seconds for them to sink in,” according to Geller et al.

Final Thoughts
Self-compassion is not self-pity. It is not weakness. It is creating an inner environment of goodness and goodwill so that you can offer compassion to others from a place of authenticity and grace. Self-compassion helps to keep the body in a harmonious state so that it can thrive and live healthily.

 

Sources
Allen, Ashley Batts and Mark R Leary. “Self-Compassion, Stress, and Coping” Social and personality psychology compass vol. 4,2 (2010): 107-118.
https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/SCCoping.pdf

Geller S. and Greenberg L.. Therapeutic Presence: A Mindful Approach. Washington: American Psychological Association, 2012.

Schenck D. and Churchill L. Healer: Extraordinary Clinicians at Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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