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Self-compassion is more powerful than you might think

Self-compassion is more powerful than you might think
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Practicing self-care for some people might look like taking a much-needed mental health day or finally scheduling that doctor’s appointment you put off. But there’s one thing you might be overlooking that could make a huge difference in your everyday life – being kind to yourself. In fact, experts agree that self-compassion goes a long way in terms of your overall wellbeing. Here are the surprising benefits you may not know that will convince you to be nicer to yourself.

You’ll have less stress

You’ll have less stress
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We’re all pretty hard on ourselves, criticising everything from our parking effort 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. Some studies have found 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. Plus, more research also shows people with more self-compassion not only handle stress better, but they also spend less time dwelling on past stressful events.

You’ll lower your heart rate

You’ll lower your heart rate
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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, 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

You’ll boost your immune function
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Research is growing on the link between mind and body health – a review of studies over 30 years 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 might be “compassion meditation,” 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.

Try these simple habits to naturally boost your immune system.

You’ll be less anxious and depressed

You’ll be less anxious and depressed
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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 protect against depression by helping us feel more connected and helping us cope. “Research shows that self-compassion deepens empathy,” Dr Serani says. “Many who practise 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 8 hidden signs of depression.

You’ll stick with your weight-loss goals

You’ll stick with your weight-loss goals
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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 behaviours are driven by difficulties with emotional regulation,” Dr Neff says. “Self-compassion is linked to healthier eating behaviours – 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. A 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 how to lose weight without a lick of exercise.

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You’ll better manage diabetes

You’ll better manage diabetes
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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 stabilised their glucose levels.” This makes sense because the stress hormone cortisol increases glucose in the blood, although this is an ongoing area of research. 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.

Watch for these 12 signs that you’re borderline diabetic.

You’ll cope better with chronic pain

You’ll cope better with chronic pain
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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 labour. 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 ease chronic pain without drugs.

You’ll rewire your brain

You’ll rewire your brain
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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.

Learn how to meditate and beat stress.

You’ll quit smoking

You’ll quit smoking
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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.

Want to cut back on alcohol? Here are 16 tips to drink a little less.

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