12 Surprisingly Powerful Health Benefits of Being Nicer to Yourself
The emerging field of self-compassion research is proving that being kind to yourself is one of the best things you can do for your health.
You’ll have less stress
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We’re all pretty hard on ourselves, criticizing everything from our thighs to our parking job to our off-hand comments at work. And it’s not without consequences. “Harsh self-criticism activates the sympathetic nervous system—fight or flight—and elevates stress hormones such as cortisol in our bloodstream,” says Emma Seppala, PhD, science director the Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and author of The Happiness Track. Too much cortisol can lead to problems ranging from weight gain to cardiovascular trouble. Enter self-compassion, which means treating yourself the way you’d treat a friend who’s going through a hard time—with support and understanding, instead of criticism. Studies have shown that using self-compassion techniques can reverse the negative trend of criticism and cortisol. “When you practice self-compassion, you reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which takes away the state of stress,” says Deborah Serani, PsyD, award-winning author of Living with Depression and a psychology professor at Adelphi University. “The more you stay with positive thoughts, the more dopamine surges, which floods your body with feel-good hormones.” How can you practice self-compassion? “Instead of saying things like, ‘How could I have done this? I’m such an idiot!’ you might say, ‘I had a moment of absent-mindedness and that’s okay—it could have happened to anyone,’” Dr. Seppala says. Learn 15 five-second strategies for shutting down stress in the moment.
You’ll lower your heart rate
In fight-or-flight mode, your heart pounds and your blood pressure spikes. “People are threatened when they’re struggling, so the natural threat response is to attack the problem—which in this case is yourself,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, author of Self-Compassion and a pioneer in the field. This instinctive mechanism is why we’re so apt to be hard on ourselves. But by shutting down your body’s fight-or-flight response with kindness, you’ll slow your heart rate and blood pressure, which helps your cardiovascular health. “When the heart rate is flexible, which means it can adjust to whatever’s happening, that’s a sign of not being in this fight or flight, so you aren’t so reactive and you’re able to actually adjust more,” Dr. Neff says. Here are 9 ways to stop the damage of negative self-talk.
You’ll boost your immune function
Research is growing on the link between mind and body health—a University of Kentucky review of studies found that stress does have an impact on the immune system. This is because in flight-or-fight mode, other systems slow down temporarily to give the body a chance to deal with the threat—but with chronic stress, they stay slowed down. You can counteract this dynamic by being kinder to yourself. “Immune function seems to be enhanced by self-compassion,” Dr. Neff says. “There are reports that people experience fewer symptoms like coughs and colds. It’s all related to stress reactivity.” A method of practicing self-compassion, “compassion meditation,” was shown in one study to reduce a stress-induced immune response. But Dr. Neff says full-on meditation doesn’t have to be part of self-compassion to get the benefits. “As part of our mindful self-compassion program we teach a ‘self-compassion break,’ in which you turn toward yourself and your struggle to remind yourself to be kind, have common humanity, and to be mindful,” Dr. Neff says. Find out nine innocent habits that might be ruining your immune system.
You’ll be less anxious and depressed
Not surprisingly, being hard on ourselves leads us down the path toward mental health issues like anxiety and depression. “There’s really robust literature that increased self-compassion reduces depression,” Dr. Neff says. “With self compassion, you remember common humanity—that mistakes, failure, and struggle are part of the human condition, which releases you from a feeling of isolation,” Dr. Neff says. “It’s actually that feeling of isolation which appears to be most responsible for depression.” Self-compassion helps protects against depression by helping us feel more connected. “Research shows that self-compassion deepens empathy,” Dr. Serani says. “Many who practice self-compassion report having more meaningful connections to others than those who don’t.” Along with a reduction in depression is a lessening of anxiety. “One of the key features of self-compassion is it gives you more perspective,” Dr. Neff says. “We can actually step out of our own storyline, and that allows you to be less lost in the drama of anxiety when difficult things happen.” Here are 12 ways to help someone with depression.
You’ll stick with your weight-loss goals
Being kind to yourself and in a good emotional place can help break the stress-eating connection. “Self-compassion helps people stick to their weight-loss goals because it helps you manage your emotions, and often our unhealthy eating behaviors are driven by difficulties with emotional regulation,” Dr. Neff says. “Self-compassion is linked to healthier eating behaviors—people tend to stop when they’re full, for instance, if they’re more self-compassionate, whereas people keep overeating as a way to draw out negative emotions.” Also, being kind to yourself gives you the motivation to keep going even if you have diet slip-ups. One study disguised as a taste-test had participants who were on a diet eat a doughnut. Half of them were told not to feel bad about eating the doughnut, and then both groups were put into a room with a bowl of candy. The half that was told to be self-compassionate actually ate less candy than the group that wasn’t told—thereby better sticking with their diet. Self-compassion can also foster a healthy body image, so there’s less shame surrounding healthy weight loss. “Research says high self-compassion predicts fewer body image concerns,” Dr. Serani says. “When it comes to body image confidence, the more self-compassion you have, the more you accept who you are inside and out.” Read 50 ways to lose weight without a lick of exercise.
You’ll better manage diabetes
Although self-compassion can benefit a wide variety of health conditions, a specific one Dr. Neff brings up is diabetes. “A colleague of ours just did a study with diabetes patients and how self-compassion affects them,” she says. “Not only did she find it helped them deal with the distress of having diabetes, she found it actually stabilized their glucose levels.” This makes sense because according to the Mayo Clinic, the stress hormone cortisol increases glucose in the blood. So, reducing stress through self-compassion could be one way to help manage diabetes. “The emotional mindset of self-compassion actually helps people not have those constant spikes in glucose, which is one of the biggest problems with diabetes,” Dr. Neff says. What is the surprising new reason behind rising diabetes rates?
You’ll cope better with chronic pain
By changing your mindset from criticism to compassion, you can actually change how your body reacts to pain. “People report fewer aches and experience less physical pain,” Dr. Neff says. “Pain is often caused by tension and resistance, so when we soften a little bit as opposed to a harsh reactive stance, it tends to reduce the amount of pain we physically experience.” Changing your mindset about pain can help you deal with everything from chronic back issues to labor. Meditation can also help relax your body so that it can better handle pain. “Science has known for a long time that mindfulness and meditation ease pain by releasing endorphins,” Dr. Serani says. Meditation can also help you accept sensations as they are—and this perspective can help you reframe how you think about pain. Find out seven ways to improve your posture and ease your back pain.
You’ll rewire your brain
Using mindful meditation as part of your self-compassion practice can actually help change your brain for the better. “Meditation absolutely helps the brain function more efficiently—it actually changes the structure of it and it rewires it,” Dr. Neff says. “It increases cortical thickness, which is the part of the brain that helps cross-brain communication, so it helps the brain be more integrated and function more as a whole.” Dr. Seppala notes that her research has shown that loving-kindness meditation impacts the areas of the brain related to social connectedness—and a major tenet of self-compassion is finding our common humanity and feeling less alone. “By retraining the brain to ‘observe’ rather than ‘get lost in’ the flow of emotions, sensations, and feelings, you are changing your brain circuitry,” she says. Here are more compelling benefits of meditation.
You’ll quit smoking
Self-compassion can literally help you kick a smoking habit. “There was a study that showed that training people in self-compassion for three weeks helped people quit smoking,” Dr. Neff says. In the study, researchers found that self-compassion was especially effective if the participants were low in readiness to change and high in self-criticism—so self-compassion can actually motivate us and turn our mindset about ourselves around. Because many smokers know it’s not good for them, the inability to quit may feel shameful, but treating yourself kindly with the recognition that quitting is difficult can actually help you be more successful. This attitude is a way to look at any bad habit you’re looking to curb—for example, “another study showed it helped reduce alcohol use,” Dr. Neff says. Ex-smokers reveal what helped them quit for good.
You’ll be more motivated to exercise
When you feel good, you’re more pumped to get out and be physically active—and you feel good if you treat yourself with kindness. “If you care about yourself and you don’t want to suffer you’re going to be more motivated to do things like exercise,” Dr. Neff says. When people exercise because they enjoy it and want to be healthy, it’s more likely to become a life-long habit. “Exercise is much more sustainable if you want to do it—it’s intrinsically more satisfying, as opposed to just trying to look better in your jeans,” she says. And although being kind means going easy on yourself if you skip a day, that doesn’t mean you won’t hold yourself accountable. “People really think self-compassion is going to undermine their motivation or make them flake and not be responsible for their actions, but the opposite is true,” Dr. Neff says. “Shaming and destructive criticism undermines your motivation because you lose faith in yourself and become afraid of failure, so you give up.” She says to think about how you would encourage a child—not by telling them they are a worthless loser, but by saying you believe in them and that they can do it. Here are 14 subtle but powerful health benefits of exercising.
Your caregivers won’t burn out
Self-compassion could also indirectly affect your health if your caregivers, including family members or healthcare workers, treat themselves with kindness. “For people whose profession or life is made up of giving to others, self-compassion helps them sustain the giving without burning out,” Dr. Neff says. “It’s like you’re recharging your own batteries.” If a caregiver keeps giving without helping themselves, they definitely will run out of their own resources, she says. According to a study from Portugal, practicing self-compassion to recognize their own needs allowed nurses to better deal with “compassion fatigue,” or the exhaustion of caring for others. Read more tips to avoid caregiver burnout.
You can better handle life’s challenges
Studies show self-compassion can help you cope with whatever life throws your way, from cancer to infertility to parenting a child with autism. “By preventing the defeating effects of self-criticism, self-compassion allows us to maintain peace of mind and thereby retain our energy,” Dr. Seppala says. In addition to being mindful of how you talk to yourself, she suggests other self-compassion strategies like writing yourself a letter, developing a mantra or phrase like, “May I be kind to myself in this moment of suffering,” or making a daily gratitude list. By learning how to deal with adversity, you can be resilient enough in body and mind to meet any health challenge. “Self-compassion is a strength,” Dr. Neff says. “It actually helps you cope with life’s difficulties.” Find out more health benefits of gratitude.