When we think about ways to take better care of our health, we often focus on diet and exercise. But our mental health is just as important as our physical health (if not more so!). How often do you take time for yourself — not just to collapse on the couch and watch a TV show, but to truly practice self-compassion? New research suggests that being kind to yourself doesn’t just feel good — it may actually reduce your risk of heart disease.
It’s okay if the concept of self-compassion is a little new. According to Good Therapy, self-compassion is the ability to turn understanding, acceptance, and love inward. It might be easy for you to feel compassion for others, but harder to feel that same empathy for yourself. We are our own worst critics, after all! But learning to practice self-compassion can do wonders for your well-being, as shown by science.
How Self-Compassion Helps Your Heart
While self-compassion has already been linked to positive psychological benefits, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Illinois at Chicago theorized that it could also have important cardiovascular benefits. So, they conducted a study published in Health Psychology to test out their theory.
The team recruited 195 women between 45 and 67 years of age. None of the participants had cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study, and all of them had to complete a questionnaire. The survey asked questions that helped the team assess how much self-compassion each woman had for herself, and whether she showed signs of depression. For example, the women had to rate how often they experienced feelings of inadequacy, or felt disappointed in self-perceived flaws. They also had to rate how much care and self-love they gave to themselves in times of hardship.
Next, the researchers measured each participant’s BMI, blood pressure, blood lipid levels, and blood sugar levels. They also took ultrasounds of each woman’s carotid arteries (the major arteries in your neck that supply your head and brain with blood). The team then used these measurements and ultrasounds to analyze each participant’s cardiovascular health.
The results were quite interesting. The women who scored higher on the self-compassion scale had thinner carotid artery walls and less plaque buildup in those walls as compared to women who scored lower. In other words, women with more self-compassion had better cardiovascular health. The correlation stayed the same even when the researchers accounted for confounding factors that could influence heart disease risk, such as physical activity levels, smoking status, diet, and symptoms of depression.
“These findings underscore the importance of practicing kindness and compassion, particularly towards yourself,” Rebecca Thurston, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, clinical and translational science, epidemiology, and psychology at Pittsburgh, explained in a press release. “We are all living through extraordinarily stressful times, and our research suggests that self-compassion is essential for both our mental and physical health.”
How to Practice Self Compassion
Looking to improve your self-compassion? Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin, believes in a meditative practice to make self-love a habit.
“Self-compassion is often a radically new way of relating to ourselves,” she writes on her site, Self-Compassion. “Research shows that the more we practice being kind and compassionate with ourselves … the more we’ll increase the habit of self-compassion.”
Dr. Neff offers a series of free audio meditations on her website. You can download them at any time and enjoy them at your leisure. The meditations range in time from five minutes to 24 minutes to fit any schedule. Even the busiest of us can take five minutes to practice a little mindfulness and increase our love for ourselves!