Why Self-Compassion Is the Key to Thriving During Stressful Times

Stop being so hard on yourself, this study says.

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Feeling stressed out? Having self-compassion—and not being so hard on yourself—may be a helpful strategy for not just getting through, but thriving during challenging times, according to a 2016 mental health study on university students. Results of the study, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, found that students who reported increases in self-compassion during their first year at school also felt more energetic, optimistic, and engaged, researchers found.

The first year of college can be full of unexpected stressors. So Canadian researchers—lead by Katie Gunnell, PhD, as part of her doctoral research at the University of British Columbia—wanted to see if students’ levels of self-compassion would help them cope. They recruited 189 freshmen and had them each fill out a questionnaire, at the beginning of the school year and again five months later.

The questionnaires were designed to assess the three components of self-compassion: mindfulness (versus over-identification), self-kindness (versus self-judgment), and common humanity (versus isolation). Participants were asked how frequently they agree with statements such as “when something upsets me I try to keep my emotions in balance,” and “when I’m feeling down, I tend to feel like most other people are probably happier than I am.”

The researchers found that an increase in self-compassion over those five months was related to increases in feelings related to competence, ownership over one’s behaviors (autonomy), and connectivity to others. Optimism, energy levels, and motivation levels rose, as well.

Because the study only included first-year university students, the results may not generalize to all populations, said Gunnell, now an assistant professor of psychology at Carleton University.

“However, there is evidence from other published research that self-compassion can be useful in other contexts, particularly during times of failure, transition, or setback,” she told RealSimple.com. For example, Gunnell’s co-authors have also found that self-compassion can be useful for elite female athletes dealing with negative events.

But self-compassion is about more than just treating yourself to a margarita or booking a professional massage. If you’re the type of person who tends to come down hard on yourself, Gunnell says, it may actually require a bit of effort and soul-searching. Here are a few attainable tricks for cultivating some compassion for yourself, particularly through journaling.

1. Treat yourself the way you'd treat a friend going through the same thing.

One strategy she recommends is journaling about negative events “as though you were comforting your friend who experienced something negative,” she says. “It’s important to keep your positive and negative thoughts in balance—try not to over-fixate on the negative thoughts.”

2. Remember to keep things in perspective.

It can also be helpful to recognize and write about how other people also experience similar setbacks, Gunnell adds, and how it’s part of a common global experience.

3. But don't baby yourself.

It’s important to acknowledge that having self-compassion doesn’t mean giving up on yourself, not working hard in the first place, or absolving yourself of responsibilities. “Being self-compassionate means that you're open to your suffering and you offer support and understanding toward yourself,” she says. “It can help people take responsibility for setbacks of failures, acknowledge the setback without judgment, and recognize that everyone makes mistakes and that you can learn from these experiences.”

In this way, she adds, self-compassion can promote healthy mindsets and adaptive coping mechanisms for when the going gets tough.

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