Can self-compassion reduce inflammation?

From positive thinking to mindfulness meditation – practices that induce self-compassion have long been shown to increase overall happiness. But what about the effects on our physical body?

Lady pruning an indoor plant

The mind body connection

The mind and body have historically been treated as separate entities, but thankfully the intrinsic connection between our physical and emotional health is now well understood. If you’ve ever felt your stomach tie in knots when you’re nervous or overwhelmed – you've experienced the mind body connection firsthand. While we still don’t understand everything about it, researchers continue to unpack this two-way communication system and how it can influence our overall health.

Stress-induced inflammation

We can’t talk about stress-induced inflammation without touching on the stress response (aka the ‘fight or flight’ response). This response is wired into our physiology to help us react to any perceived danger. Although modern-day humans are free from many of the physical stressors that our early ancestors were subjected to, the psychosocial forms of stress we’re exposed to are constant. From financial stress and workplace tension to family conflict – these stressors can very quickly add up and cause damage to our holistic health if left unaddressed.

When we’re exposed to illness or injury, the body triggers an inflammatory response to promote healing. While this response is necessary for us to heal and adapt, if it’s triggered often, we can run into health complications. In the same way that an inflammatory cascade is triggered by illness or injury, modern-day stressors have been shown to set off a similar inflammatory cascade – otherwise known as stress-induced inflammation.

What is self-compassion

So what is self-compassion? It’s all about treating yourself with kindness and understanding, and giving yourself the same care and compassion you would give a friend. Having this kind of self-attitude has been associated with lower stress-induced inflammation by reducing the magnitude of perceived stress. This means that people with more self-compassion are less likely to feel emotionally reactive in stressful situations compared to those who have low self-compassion.

What the research says

Research shows that when our internal dialogue is more positive, we have less self-criticism and we feel less shame towards ourselves – which influences the way we perceive stress. Having self-compassion has been shown to buffer the negative effects of everyday stressors.

A study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity found that self-compassion can serve as a protective mechanism against inflammation induced by stress. The study took 41 healthy individuals and examined the relationship between self-compassion and stress-induced inflammation. Participants were instructed to complete a social stress test which consisted of public speaking and doing math equations in front of an audience – both of which would leave the average person sweating at the mere thought! After being tested, blood samples were taken from the participants to assess their reaction and researchers found that the people who had the highest levels of self-compassion had the lowest levels of inflammation.

This study indicates that while inflammation is inevitable to some degree, the relationship we have with ourselves can have a profound influence on the way we experience stress. It also suggests that self-compassion serves as a protective mechanism against stress-induced inflammation. So how can you bring some more self-compassion into your day to support your overall health?


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