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The surprising power of self-compassion

Alice Gomstyn By Alice Gomstyn

How do you treat your close friends? Do you approach them with kindness? Do you offer reassurance when they're down and encouragement when they’re going through tough times? A growing body of research shows that you could reap major health benefits by showing yourself that same type of love and support.

Researchers have found that those who practice self-compassion tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives, suffer from less anxiety and depression, and enjoy better physical health. "Self-compassion is a source of strength," explains Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert on the subject and author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. "It gives us the support we need to deal with life's challenges."

What’s more, she says, self-compassion can help you build resilience and motivate you take care of yourself and stick with your health goals, like quitting smoking, exercising or eating healthy. It can even help improve your relationships. After all, when you treat yourself kindly, you’re more likely to be loving toward others.

Learning self-compassion through mindfulness

Treating yourself like you would a good friend sounds easy enough, right? But don’t be discouraged if it takes some time before it becomes part of your mindset. Experts agree that a good first step is to practice mindfulness, or observing your present moment experience, including your own emotions,  with an open and curious mindset. That’s because once you’re able to recognize and acknowledge what you’re feeling, you can begin to approach yourself from a more loving and understanding place.

“Simply paying attention to something is the first step towards caring about it,” explains Andy Lee, Aetna’s chief mindfulness officer. "If your car breaks down, does it help to yell at it? No. You open the hood. You see what's going on, because you need to understand the system to know what to do next. Working with our emotions is similar.”

There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Lee, for example, often takes a “mindful minute,” or 60 seconds of silence and calm to refresh his mind, and makes a point to get up and stretch every half hour or so. He also tries to avoid mental loops where he rehashes a stressful situation over and over. “Basically, the more I can check in with myself during the day about how I’m feeling, what I’m doing and why, the better my days go,” he says.

Practicing self-compassion

Self-compassion is highly individual — what works for you may not be as effective for other people. But there are some techniques experts suggest trying, listed below. While you’ll get the most out of doing one or more of these regularly, Dr. Neff says that even practicing them every once in a while can provide immediate benefits.

Soothing touch: Don’t underestimate the power of touch. Dr. Neff says that something as simple as holding your own hand or putting one hand over your heart can immediately activate what's known as a parasympathetic nervous system response, resulting in a slower heart rate and the reduction of the stress hormone cortisol. Different people find different types of touch most comforting; it may take time for you to determine which kind works best for you.

Write yourself a letter: What would you say to a close friend who is experiencing the problems you're struggling with? Put your thoughts in a letter, address it to yourself, and then set it aside for a while. Later, return to the letter, read it and take comfort in your own kind words. If you find it helpful, consider making it a regular practice. One study found that writing a compassionate letter to yourself once a day for one week reduced depression for three months and increased happiness for six months.

Guided meditation: Because meditation encourages mindfulness, it can also promote self-compassion. Even just a few minutes a day can make a difference.

Take a self-compassion break: When you’re grappling with a problem, try visualizing it. Then say to yourself, "This is a moment of suffering." This type of simple statement can help you acknowledge that hardship is a part of life and that others struggle, too. Then give yourself a soothing touch as described above and offer yourself words of kindness, such as, "May I give myself what I need," or "May I accept myself as I am."

For all its health benefits, self-compassion isn't a cure for all your troubles. If you're obsessing over a problem and constantly beating yourself up over it, you may want to consider consulting a mental health professional for help. Aetna members can find local providers through their online provider directory or access mental health professionals through Behavioral Health Televideo services. For a general evaluation of their emotional well-being, members can also use the online tool MindCheck.

But for less intense emotional challenges, self-compassion can make a huge difference in your life. When you learn to give yourself the support you need, you'll find that a number of health goals become easier to achieve. “By treating yourself like your own best friend,” Lee says, “you create space to make a positive change.”

About the author

Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!

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