What is self-compassion actually doing to your brain?

self-compassion and the brain

On a Monday evening at the Center for Self Compassion in San Francisco, I sat in a circle with six women and practiced putting my hand on my heart. A leader with a calm, steady voice guided us through the exercise, called Compassionate Touch, which involved closing my eyes, putting my hand on my heart, and saying a kind phrase to myself. She encouraged us to think about what our best friend might say to us in a hard time, something like, “This is a hard time, and you're doing your best.”

The idea behind this exercise, and the point of this class, was to learn methods of mindful self-compassion, an approach to self-care that encourages kindness, mindfulness, and a sense of common humanity in order to face the everyday difficulties of life. In large and small moments of hardship, the theory goes, you can treat yourself the way your most caring friend or relative would treat you. This is contrasted with self-criticism, where we react to our own mistakes and failures with harsh criticism and judgment.

As I sat there with my hand on my heart, I felt utterly silly. Prior to that moment, I had never responded to a difficult moment in this way. In fact, a central premise of my life to that point had been that my achievements had doubtlessly been born out of my relentless struggle to hold myself to the highest bar and to push myself harder toward my goals. I did not get good grades in school by telling myself when I got a C that “this was hard and I am doing my best.” Instead I told myself “I’m an idiot and what the heck have I been doing with my life, I had better get my act together for the next test.”

And yet, as we sat there in silence with hands on hearts, I felt a feeling of calm wash over my body, seemingly emanating out from my hand. My muscles felt more relaxed. My breathing felt easier. It was a physical experience as much as a mental one. As the eight-week class progressed, I would often return to this gesture, surprised at how potent the simple movement was for me. Others in the class reflected on a similar feeling, again and again people said: I did not think this would be helpful for me but it is.

So what is happening in our bodies when we offer self-compassion?

Leading self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, attributes the positive effects of self-compassion to the mammalian caregiving system. This system likely evolved to help us bond with other humans and take care of children. Just like when we hug a family member or a friend, when we put a hand on our hearts, we trigger the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, has been linked to feelings of generosity and trust. In addition, self-compassion has been found to activate similar brain regions to those we use when expressing compassion and empathy towards others.

Self-criticism, on the other hand, activates our amygdala, the part of our brain that responds to threats. This stimulation causes the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare us to run away from a threat or fight it off using physical strength. Elevated cortisol levels, caused by ongoing stress, have been shown to affect memory, lower immune function, and put people at risk for a host of diseases including heart disease and depression.

Self-criticism has been strongly linked to a range of mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders and anxiety, and greater self-compassion has consistently been linked to less anxiety and depression. In one study, 84 female college students were given a bowl of candy to perform what they thought was a tasting experiment. In one group, the experimenter told the woman that she hoped they wouldn’t be too hard on themselves for eating the candy since everyone in the study was also eating candy. The control group, who did not receive the message, ate more candy than the women who did hear this reassurance. The hypothesis is that the self-compassion intervention led the woman to feel less guilt and engage in less emotional eating.

As more and more research on self-compassion has been done in the past two decades, the evidence is piling up that the positive effects of being kind to yourself far outweigh any positive effects of being hard on yourself. In my own experience with self-compassion, I also find the internal shift I have witnessed hard to refute.  And yet…as a go-getter, independence-minded, break-the-glass-ceiling American woman, I still occasionally think…stop being so soft on yourself! You’ll never get anywhere like this!

And in those moments when I notice myself doing this, if I have the presence of mind, I put my hand on my heart, a soft smile on my face, and say “this is a journey, everyone feels this way sometimes, and I am doing my best.”

Mental HealthRachel Katz