How Self-Compassion Can Help You Thrive During Stressful Times

Photo by JGI/Jamie Grill
Stop being so hard on yourself, says a new study. 

This article originally appeared on Real Simple

Feeling stressed out? Having self-compassion—and not being so hard on yourself—may be the key to surviving and thriving during challenging times, according to a new study. University students who reported increases in self-compassion during their first year at school also felt more energetic, optimistic, and engaged, researchers found.

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The first year of college can be full of unexpected stressors. So Canadian researchers 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.”

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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, says lead author Katie Gunnell, PhD, now a junior research scientist at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.

“However, there is evidence from other published research that self-compassion can be useful in other contexts,” she told RealSimple.com, “particularly during times of failure, transition, or setback.” 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 some edible cookie dough or scheduling a 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.

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.”

It can also be helpful to recognize and write about how other people also experience similar setbacks, she adds, and how it’s part of a global common experience. Lastly, it’s important to acknowledge that having self-compassion doesn’t mean giving up on yourself or not working hard in the first place.

“Being self-compassionate means that you are 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 that way, she adds, self-compassion can promote healthy mindsets and adaptive coping mechanisms for when the going gets tough. The study was part of Gunnell’s doctoral research at the University of British Columbia, and is published in the journalPersonality and Individual Differences.

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