Here Are the Major Health Benefits of Being Kinder to Yourself


A key part of meditation is practicing the act of compassion—not only to others, but also to yourself. The Dalai Lama himself once said, "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

You sit in an upright position, close your eyes, focus on your breath, imagine a loved one standing before you, and wish them love, light, and health. If you want to level-up, you do the same thing with someone you dislike, by trying to empathize with why they may act the way they do, or by thanking them for helping you practice patience and understanding. Oftentimes, the hardest thing to do is to practice this compassion exercise with yourself, to replace those thoughts of "I'm a failure" and "I'm not good enough" with "I love myself" and "I'm doing the best I can."

All of this might sound kind of, well, hokey, but a new study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science shows it really works. Researchers divided 135 University of Exeter students into five groups who were given 11-minute audio recordings that either encouraged them to be critical of themselves and others or instructed them to be kind to themselves. Researchers then monitored their heart rates and sweat responses to the exercises, and asked them questions related to how calm, safe, and connected to others they felt.

The results showed that not only did the compassion groups feel more of a connection to others, their bodily responses indicated an increase in relaxation through a drop in heart rate, reduced sweat response, and an increase in heart rate variability—the time interval between heartbeats—which indicates better health, a younger biological age, and the ability to handle and adapt to stressful situations. Participants in the critical group, however, reacted in a way that indicated feelings of threat and distress.

"Previous research has found that self-compassion was related to higher levels of wellbeing and better mental health, but we didn't know why," Dr Anke Karl, the leader of the Clinical Psychology Research Group and the Mood Disorders Centre at the University of Exeter and lead author of the study, said in a university newsletter. "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. We hope future research can use our method to investigate this in people with mental health problems such as recurrent depression."

Indeed, while practicing compassion meditation is useful for everyone, it can be especially life-changing for those who are prone to negative thinking, as it helps you become more aware of your thoughts and better able to control them. The practice doesn't mean you won't still sometimes think, "Wow, I really hate that guy on the bus" or periodically ask yourself "Why am I so unlovable?" but it will enable you to catch yourself when you're having these thoughts, realize that they are thoughts rather than facts, and direct your mind to a more positive place.

"My sense is that for people prone to depression, meeting their negative thoughts and feelings with compassion is a radically different way—that these thoughts are not facts," Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and co-author of the study, said. "It introduces a different way of being and knowing that is quite transformative for many people."

Meditation has also been proven to be an effective tool for troubled sleepers, as it helps you quiet your mind, particularly if you suffer from anxiety. In fact, a recent study even found that practicing meditation for just 10 minutes a day can have the same benefits as an extra 44 minutes of sleep a night.

Given that the global state of mental health is in such disarray, it should be no surprise that "mindfulness" has become a leading form of treatment in the wellness community. According to The New York Times, up to 370 schools in England are introducing "mindfulness" classes next year. They may not be able to tell what time it is anymore, but at least they'll be zen. And if you're looking to treat yourself better—both physically and mentally—on the reg, don't miss these 30 Ways to Be Kinder to Yourself Every Day.

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