How self-compassion helps us cope with stress

Payton Easley gives himself a hug. Monday, October, 18, 2021. (Photo illustration by: Xander Ordinola)
Payton Easley gives himself a hug. Monday, October, 18, 2021. (Photo illustration by: Xander Ordinola)

Written by Tami Navalon

During the middle of the semester, it is likely that academic pressure is mounting. Often when pressures build, some things begin to fall through the cracks: We don’t have the time to study like we want. We begin to sleep less. We spend less time with friends. We feel overwhelmed. We spend more time distracted by media, and, ultimately, we have a hard time keeping up with all the demands. 

According to a study done in 2018, during difficult times, many become self-critical, judgmental and begin to over-identify with distress. We may assume being hard on ourselves helps us be more productive; however, it often does the opposite. Self-criticism actually leads to more distress, increased anxiety, isolation and symptoms of depression. 

In contrast, self-compassion can actually lead to greater well-being and ability to cope with distress. A pioneer in research on self-compassion, Kristin Neff and colleagues have linked the practice of self-compassion to improved overall wellbeing, alleviation of depressive symptoms, improved help-seeking, optimism, happiness, promotion of self-forgiveness and increased ability to cope and remain emotionally balanced through difficult situations. Heff defines self-compassion as an acknowledgment of personal suffering through a lens of kindness and being nonjudgmental with the understanding that all people experience challenges and failures.

The impact of self-compassion not only alleviates symptoms but also improves our moral character and capacity for accepting the failures of others. Research done by Wirth in 2020 indicates that people who practice self-compassion take more responsibility for their errors, have improved self-motivation and cope more effectively following a difficult situation. 

In addition, research by Neff and Beretvas suggests self-compassionate people are also more likely to be altruistic, forgiving and compassionate toward others, leading to improved relationship satisfaction.  

Although self-compassion sounds like a cure-all, many find self-criticizing thoughts to be automatic, and we can find ourselves in a spiral of negative thoughts and distress. 

So how did we learn to be so critical of ourselves? Research by Brenner in 2018 suggests our tendency to be self-critical often stems from feeling threatened and trying to protect ourselves. Our mind, even the self-critical parts, aims to protect us in some way. At points in our lives, we encountered situations, both large and small, that felt threatening. To adapt and counteract this threat, our system enacts strategies to reduce the threat by becoming hypervigilant, critical and avoidant of negative situations. The system also tries to locate a reason for the distress so it can be avoided in the future, which often leads to self-judgment, self-blaming and self-isolation. 

However, Brenner also said those who are able to practice self-compassion have environments where they feel safe, environments where they feel heard, understood, comforted and encouraged. This safeness promotes positive connection with others and self. It allows for the engagement of self-soothing, forgiveness, tolerance and resilience . 

What does self-compassion look like in practice? When one makes an error or experiences a failure, they first must acknowledge they are suffering and be willing to be present with their suffering self. This might be saying to yourself “things are really difficult for me right now,” and instead of engaging in self-criticism, asking yourself, “How will I comfort and take care of myself right now?” 

By responding mindfully and recognizing “to err is human” and suffering is shared by all people, a person is able to stay present with the difficult tasks they face, like completing the next assignment or studying for that test. 

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