Mindfulness self-compassion practices also uniquely reduced arousal and increased parasympathetic activation compared to the control conditions. This suggests that self-compassion may play an important and very particular role in emotion regulation.
Dr Anke Karl, of the University of Exeter, said: “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. We hope future research can use our method to investigate this in people with mental health problems such as recurrent depression.”
Co-author Professor Willem Kuyken, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, said: “These findings help us understand some of our clinical trials where we’ve shown that individuals with recurrent depression benefit particularly from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy when they learn to become more self-compassionate. Understanding how treatments work will enable us to make stepwise improvements in depression outcomes.”
For people prone to depression, meeting their negative thoughts and feelings with compassion helps them to decentre from their negative thinking, which recent research has shown is key to sustained recovery following both mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and cognitive therapy.
Professor Willem Kuyken
The study randomly assigned 135 healthy young adults to one of five groups. There were two 11-minute mindfulness practices teaching self-compassion, one teaching self-compassion explicitly, the other implicitly. The people in the remaining groups heard one of three negative, neutral or positive recordings of the same length. Participants’ heart rate, heart rate variability and sweat response were then measured and they were asked to report on how they were feeling.
Participants in both the self-compassion and positive groups reported greater feelings of self-compassion and decreased self-criticism. However, only the self-compassion groups showed the specific bodily response associated with emotion regulation of reduced heart rate, skin conductance and increased parasympathetic activation (increased heart rate variability), compared to the control groups.
This study is one of a series led by Dr Hans Kirschner, a PhD student.
The full study is entitled 'Soothing Your Heart and Feeling Connected: A New Experimental Paradigm to Study the Benefits of Self-Compassion'. The research was funded in part by the Compassionate Mind Foundation.