It’s 2019 and the term “self-love” is likely a part of your vocabulary by now. You’ve probably seen it in plastered all over social media in hashtag form on photo captions of a bunch of things, from double-tap-worthy dinners to spa days out and lazy nights in.
Because of the things often associated with self-love, it’s understandable that the very concept of it could look like just another empty, self-indulgent trend birthed by the “me, me, me!” age of social media. But before jumping on that bandwagon, what if I told you that there’s scientific evidence supporting the benefits of self-love, or eat least self-compassion and kindness?
Because it actually exists. A recent study done by the universities of Exeter and Oxford in the UK shows that doing self-compassion exercises can calm your heart rate and help your immune system by turning off your body’s threat response. This study was published in the Clinical Psychological Science journal.
135 healthy students from the University of Exeter were split into five groups and were each given a set of audio instructions to follow. The research team measured the participants’ heart rates and sweat responses and asked them to describe how they were feeling by answering a few questions. Some of the questions asked how safe they felt, how likely they were to be kind to themselves and how connected they felt to other people.
Two groups of the groups listened to 11-minute long audio recordings that encouraged them to be kind to themselves and others. One of these recordings was described as a “self-compassionate body scan” and the other as a “self-focused loving kindness exercise”.
The first one encouraged participants to approach their bodily sensations with calmness and interest and the second encouraged them to aim kindness and soothing thoughts at themselves and a loved one.
The recordings heard by the other three groups were also 11 minutes long, but had a different tone. These recordings either helped create a “critical inner voice” in the participants, or helped them feel positive but also improvement-oriented, or, just described a neutral shopping scenario.
Participants who were part of the two groups that listened to the self-compassionate recordings, along with those in the group that listened to the positive-but-improvement-oriented ones reported feeling more compassionate and less critical towards themselves.
But, only those in the self-compassion groups showed improvement in their physical responses. This indicates that they were feeling relaxed and safe. Their heart rates that were lowered by an average of two to three beats per minute and their heartbeats varied in length of time between each other — a positive sign showing that the heart is able to adapt to different situations. Plus, their sweat responses dropped.
On the flip side, participants who listened to instructions that encouraged self-criticism had increased heart rates and higher sweat responses. Both of these are physical signs of feeling threatened or distressed.
Researchers’ takes on the results
The study’s first author, Dr Hans Kirschner, who carried out the research at the University of Exeter, said that these results show that being kind to yourself can turn off the body’s threat responses and put it in a state of safety and relaxation. This, he says, encourages regeneration and healing in the body.
Dr Anke Karl, who led the study, says that although past research has shown a link between self-compassion and better wellbeing and mental health, the exact explanation of this link hasn’t always been clear but that this study sheds some light on it.
Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and study co-author, believes that this study could also explain findings from past clinical trials.
According to him, the results of this study can help us understand why people with recurrent depression seem to benefit from using therapeutic techniques that encourage self-compassion. An example being mindfulness-based cognitive-behavioural therapy.
He says that if people who are prone to depression approach negative thoughts and feelings in a compassionate way and are aware that they’re not facts, it could be a game-changer for them.
Still, the researchers say that because this study was carried out with healthy participants, they can’t assume yet that the results will apply to people living with depression. But, they do have plans to widen their research and study how people with recurrent depression physically respond to self-compassion.
Another issue with the study that the researchers point out is that it didn’t look at the participants’ abilities to address their own low mood. This is also a key feature of self-compassion.
It looks like #selflove isn’t such a terrible invention after all. Maybe saying nice things to ourselves and pinching self-care ideas from the hashtag will push us even further down the path to happiness!
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Written by; Tesneem Ayoub