Being kind to yourself can boost both physical and mental wellbeing, according to a new study. Taking time to think nice thoughts about yourself and loved ones can calm the heart rate and switch off the body’s ‘threat response’. Previous studies have shown that the ‘threat response’ can damage the immune system. So, taking part in self-compassion exercises is actually a healthy thing to do.
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The research team, from Oxford University and Exeter University, believe the ability to switch off the response may lower the risk of disease. In the study, published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, 135 healthy Exeter University students were divided into five groups, and members of each group heard a different set of audio instructions. The team measured heart rate and sweat response, and asked the participants to report how they were feeling. Questions included how safe they felt, how likely they were to be kind to themselves and how connected they felt to others.
The two groups whose instructions encouraged them to be kind to themselves not only reported feeling more self-compassion and connection with others, but also showed a bodily response consistent with feelings of relaxation and safety. Their heart rates dropped and the variation in length of time between heartbeats – a healthy sign of a heart that can respond flexibly to situations. They also showed lower sweat response. Meanwhile, instructions that induced a critical inner voice led to an increased heart rate and a higher sweat response – consistent with feelings of threat and distress. Study first author Dr Hans Kirschner, of Exeter University, said: ‘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.’ Lead researcher Dr Anke Karl, also of Exeter University, added: ‘Previous research has found that self-compassion was related to higher levels of wellbeing 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.