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Self-Compassionate Reactions to Health Threats

October 16, 2013

By Meredith Terry (Duke University)

Your ankle has been bothering you for weeks. Each step you take is painful, and when you think about your injury, you become frustrated and upset. Your friends and loved ones have encouraged you to make an appointment with your doctor and to rest and ice your ankle, but you keep resisting. You have been listening to that voice in your head—the voice that says, “Tough it out. It’ll get better. Only wimps go to the doctor or whine about their aches and pains.”

A relatively new concept helps to explain why some people are more prone to call their doctors when ill or injured and explain why some people cope better with the negative emotions that arise when they are ill or injured. That concept is Self-compassion.

Self-compassion (Neff, 2003) involves treating oneself with kindness and compassion when things are not going well or when times are tough. In addition to being kinder to themselves, self-compassionate people recognize that difficulties are a part of life, and they don’t feel isolated or alone in dealing with their problems. Self-compassionate people get less caught up in intense negative emotions during difficult times and are less likely to ignore or push away their feelings and, instead, they think about their troubles with a sense of emotional balance. Social psychological research has demonstrated self-compassion can provide a buffer against feelings of homesickness and depression (Terry, Leary, & Mehta, 2013) and minimize the negative emotions that often result from failure, rejection, or embarrassment (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock).

Our interest was in whether self-compassion was related to people’s health-related emotions, thoughts, and behaviors both during times of illness and injury and during times of wellness.  In a series of four studies (Terry, Leary, Mehta, & Henderson, 2013), we investigated several interrelated aspects of health-related emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Using both healthy participants and participants who were currently ill or injured, we explored whether self-compassion predicts emotional reactions to health problems, thoughts about one’s health, and what people do when they might need medical attention.   Our results provide several conclusions about the relationship between self-compassion and health-related emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

First, regardless of whether people are healthy or sick, those who are higher in self-compassion experience less anxiety, less depression, and less self-blame about their health. Among people who are ill or injured, self-compassionate people feel less sad, less embarrassed, and less weak when thinking about their illnesses or injuries—a statistical relationship that remains even when accounting for other predictors of health-experiences, such as illness severity, health anxiety, and the value people place on their health.

Second, people who are higher in self-compassion perceive their illnesses and injuries as less disruptive to their lives than people low in self-compassion. Importantly, people high in self-compassion see their illnesses and injuries as equally serious or severe as people low in self-compassion, but they perceive that their illnesses interfere less in their personal, professional, and social lives.

Third, self-compassion predicts health-promoting behaviors. Self-compassionate people report that they would call a doctor sooner when faced with a variety of illnesses and injuries (such as a possibly broken ankle, symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease, or a persistent headache). Individual differences in people, such as health-related anxiety, hypochondriasis, and self-regulatory strength (our ability to control our behavior or force ourselves to do unpleasant tasks) can explain why some people are more prone to call the doctor when faced with illnesses or injuries, but, in our study, self-compassion predicted calling the doctor even accounting for these factors. Self-compassion remained a significant predictor of calling the doctor even when accounting for illness cognitions (such as people’s ratings of how severe the illnesses and injuries would be or how guilty they would feel if they had each illness or injury). Finally, among those who were currently ill or injured, more self-compassionate participants reported that they tried harder to follow doctors’ or other health professionals’ recommendations.  When it came to their health, self-compassionate people took better care of themselves.

Many people struggle with making medical decision and with coping with their emotions during times of illness. These findings suggest that approaching illnesses and injuries with self-compassion may help to buffer people against negative emotions, disruptive cognitions, and health-damaging behaviors. Just as treating others with compassion helps them deal with their problems, extending self-compassion to ourselves when we are sick or injured helps us cope with illnesses and injuries and behave in ways that promote better health.


Author Information

TerryMeredith Terry is a Research Scientist at Duke University. Her primary research interest involves how people think about and evaluate themselves and the implications of their self-related thoughts and self-evaluations for health outcomes.


References

Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887-904.

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-102.

Terry, M. L., Leary, M. R., & Mehta, S. (2013). Self-compassion as a buffer against homesickness, depression, and dissatisfaction in the transition to college. Self and Identity, 12, 278-290.

Terry, M. L., Leary, M. R., Mehta, S. & Henderson, K. (2013). Self-compassion as a buffer against homesickness, depression, and dissatisfaction in the transition to college. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 911-926.


Image Credit: Used with permission of Meredith Terry; all rights reserved.

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