As the people who predominantly care for children and older adults and make up most of the nursing workforce in the U.S., women are also most likely to be subject to chronic stress, particularly during the pandemic. Mindfulness and self-compassion are the tools many mental health professionals recommend to manage the emotional symptoms of chronic stress, such as anxiety, irritability, and mild depression.

To see if mindfulness and self-compassion also offer physical benefits, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Illinois at Chicago recently examined the effects of practicing self-compassion on the cardiovascular system.

“It is better to be a cheerleader than a drill sergeant when it comes to New Year’s resolutions and making changes.”

“A lot of research has focused on the effect of stress and other negative psychological factors on cardiovascular health, but less is known about the effect of positive factors, such as self-compassion,” Rebecca Thurston, lead author on the study, told TheDoctor.

Almost 200 women between the ages of 45 and 67 took part in the study. Those with more self-compassion had thinner arterial walls and less plaque buildup than those with less self-compassion. Thickening of the arterial walls and buildup of plaque, or atherosclerosis, has been linked to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease later on.

The study findings highlight the importance of practicing compassion and kindness, particularly self-compassion. “We are living through extraordinarily stressful times, and our research suggests self-compassion is important for both our mental and physical health,” Thurston said.

Study participants completed questionnaires about how often they feel inadequate, whether they feel disappointed by what they believe to be their personal flaws or if they give themselves some grace during difficult moments in life. They also received a physical exam that included an ultrasound of their carotid arteries, which carry blood to the brain.

Self-compassion has three components, according to Thurston: feelings of kindness and gentleness towards yourself; mindfulness, a non-judgemental awareness of thoughts and feelings; and understanding that no one is alone in their distress.

One of the great things about self-compassion is that it is a skill that can be learned, Thurston, a professor of psychiatry, psychology, epidemiology, and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh, explained. One technique that can be used to develop self-compassion is to send loving and benevolent energy to yourself and others, a loving kindness meditation known among Buddhists as metta bhavana.

A Kinder, Gentler New Year
You can practice mindfulness and self-compassion as you try to make changes going into the new year. Many of us tend to think that to keep our resolutions, whether it’s changing your diet or starting an exercise program, we have to be critical of ourselves, said Thurston. But that is not true.

Self-compassion has three components: feelings of kindness and gentleness towards yourself; mindfulness; and understanding that no one is alone in their distress.

“Being very negative towards ourselves is very demotivating and harmful to our mental health,” she explained. People can still hold themselves to high standards while they move towards their goals in a more positive way. “It is better to be a cheerleader than a drill sergeant when it comes to New Year’s resolutions and making changes.”

Future studies should determine whether teaching women to have more self-compassion improves their physical health, particularly their cardiovascular health, as they age. “I think that is an important question that remains to be answered,” Thurston said.

The study is published in Health Psychology.