• Irina Sheftel

Self-compassion in a crisis

Kindness keeps you healthy

Do you know that being kinder to yourself makes you healthier? People who are more compassionate and less judgemental towards themselves have fewer physical health complaints, feel less stressed, and make better lifestyle choices.

What is a healthy lifestyle exactly?

In a new study, published in March 2020 in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers asked people how often they engage in certain behaviors — for example, stretching exercise, or cooking healthy meals. The full test used in the research included 52 questions, and measured lifestyle in six domains: health responsibility, physical activity, nutrition, spiritual growth, interpersonal relations, and stress management. 

The researchers also measured the level of self-compassion in the same sample (over 300 people). They found a strong association between self-compassion and healthy lifestyle choices. The association was strong in both men and women across all ages.  Self-compassion includes three main components: self-kindness, mindfulness, and a sense of shared humanity

Be kinder. Start now.

Self-kindness means being warm and caring towards yourself during challenging times in your life. Among all components of self-compassion, self-kindness seems to have the highest association with a healthy lifestyle. The study shows that people who are kinder to themselves are more likely to eat healthily. They also feel more responsible for their health. Several earlier studies showed that kindness may also help us to adjust to changing circumstances.

Notice how you feel

Mindfulness refers to the ability to open up to any experience with a non-reactive and balanced awareness. It means accepting that certain situations and feelings are difficult or painful. A non-judgemental and accepting stance helps regulate your behavior and handle difficult situations and puts you in a better place to make important decisions.

Same viruses affect all of us

Finally, shared humanity represents the perception that other people experience the same difficulties, rather than seeing one’s troubles as isolating and misunderstood by all others. The present coronavirus crisis makes the idea of shared humanity especially clear: we are all in it together. Just think about it: for the first time in its history, humanity is facing a crisis that affects every one of 7000000000 humans on the planet. We are connected, and you can hear very similar stories of overwhelmed hospitals, suffering businesses, and people struggling in the lockdown from all parts of the world.

The world needs kindness and non-judgment

In previous research, self-compassion was found to be related to decreased levels of pain, anger, tension, and emotional pain in individuals with chronic pain. Self-compassion exercises were related to the lower levels of both emotional and physical symptoms of depression.

How does it work? Psychologists suggest that the practice of self-compassion allows us to

  1. Process difficulties, stress and negative emotions in more effective ways 

  2. Take actions that can lead to a more balanced and healthy emotional experience

  3. See options to change oneself and/or the environment around oneself in a positive way

Self-compassion in a crisis

We live in a time of great uncertainty. We might be worried about our own health and about our loved ones. We might be losing money and be overwhelmed by financial insecurity. We might be struggling from the quarantine rules, unable to travel and reunite with our families. Social media and online offerings, although indispensable these days, may be making it worse. There is so much information and opinions out there. And it feels like we are expected to use this time to create, produce and perfect ourselves (did you check out that list of recommended series for quarantine? Or maybe you have signed up for one of those free online university courses, a new fitness regime or a water painting workshop?). You may find yourself stressed, distracted, and struggling to build a new routine. And we do not know how long this situation will last.  

Perhaps the best thing you can do is to start with self-compassion.

Here is a short self-compassion mantra that I use often for myself; I first discovered it in the book by Kirsten Neff, the pioneer of self-compassion research.

When I notice something about myself I don’t like, or whenever something goes wrong in my life, I silently repeat the following phrases: This is the moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.
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