It's not always easy to be nice to yourself. I'm not sure why this is, but I do know that that cliché about being your own worst critic is definitely true. It's just so easy to get into the habit of placing other people's needs or desires (read: your mom, your SO, your boss) way, way above your own. But the benefits of being kind to yourself can actually have a deeper, more lasting impact than you might immediately assume. While self-compassion is an important habit to practice no matter what, the results of a new study suggest it can have a very real, positive, if unexpected impact on your physical body.
Researchers from the Universities of Exeter and Oxford in the UK discovered that, when you actively practice self-compassion, it can actually calm and slow down your heart rate, not to mention switch off your body’s threat response, aka its fight-or-flight mode. Just to put that in perspective a little, when your body's threat response is activated more than it needs to be (i.e. when it's consistently activated during times of stress), it can legitimately damage your immune system over time, per research published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. So, if there are ways to avoid having that bodily response when it isn't necessary, it's all the better for your well-being.
As for the new research from the UK, which has been published in the academic journal Clinical Psychological Science, here's how that study went down: According to a press release from the University of Exeter, 135 students from the school were divided into five groups. Each group received different audio instructions, and while some included exercises of self-compassion, others "induced a critical inner voice." To gauge how these different instructions affected the participants, the researchers tracked their heart rate and sweat responses, and they asked the students to report how they felt after hearing the instructions, with questions like "how safe they felt, how likely they were to be kind to themselves and how connected they felt to others."
After all of that, the researchers found that the two groups whose audio instructions were encouraging them to be kind to themselves both reported feeling more self-compassion and connection to other people, and yes, their bodily responses illustrated feelings of relaxation and safety as well: Their heart rates dropped and slowed down, and the participants' bodies produced less sweat when listening to self-compassion exercises. Meanwhile, the instructions that guided the participants toward a more critical inner monologue seemed to lead to the opposite results: a faster heartbeat, more sweat, and more feelings of distress. The main author of the study, Dr. Hans Kirschner, said in the study's press release,
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.
Co-author of the study, Dr. Anke Karl, added,
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.
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.
And listen, I know self-compassion is kind of this lofty, what-does-it-really-mean kind of idea, which can make it feel daunting to practice or really trust as a legitimately helpful habit. But being kind to yourself can truly mean so many different things. Maybe you can create an easy ritual for yourself at the end of a hard week, like getting a bagel at your favorite bodega. Or maybe you can climb into bed early on a Friday night so you can devour more of that graphic novel you never have time to read. Maybe self-kindness just means making a quick list in your phone of all the things that made you smile that day.
Whatever it looks like for you, just do it — give it a try. What's there to lose, right?