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Research Finds Self-Compassion Can Relieve Depression

A new study finds that self-compassion can lessen chronic depression.

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A new research study published in Journal of Affective Disorders shows that mindfulness-based compassion living skills can reduce depressive symptoms in people with chronic or recurrent depression. Researchers found that practicing self-compassion reduced the severity of depressive symptoms and these benefits lasted for at least six months after learning self-compassion skills.

The study compared 61 participants diagnosed with recurrent depression who took part in mindfulness-based compassionate living training versus 61 participants who received treatment as usual for depression. Participants who took part in the mindfulness-based compassion skills training did significantly better than those who did not and continued to do better six months later as well.

Depression can often manifest as negative self-criticism and low self-esteem, which can send people into "downward spirals" of negative thinking or self-esteem attacks. Self-criticism can go from attacking one's body image to causing feelings of shame, guilt, or comparing oneself to others and feelings of inferiority.

Self-compassion can be a useful way to address directly this pattern of negative self-criticism. The fundamental teaching of mindfulness self-compassion is to be kind to oneself. Often people "talk" to themselves in a much harsher way than they would ever speak to a friend.

The new study supports previous research showing how mindfulness self-compassion sessions helped reduce depressive symptoms. These mindfulness self-compassion lessons helped to balance emotion regulation systems and focused on compassionate teachings of the four practices of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.

In prior studies, researchers found that challenges to the practice that were unhelpful included: 1) lack of clear structure of sessions, 2) lack of time to practice compassion for self, and 3) an observation called the "back draft effect." The back draft effect occurs when compassion gives one the space in which old pain and trauma can resurface, which can feel overwhelming or discouraging. It is important to be aware of the back draft effect and stop the exercise if it is feeling too painful or overwhelming.

In order to address these challenges:

  • Make sure to set aside a regular time during the day for your self-compassion practice.
  • Find a set of self-compassion skills to work on regularly, so that each session is structured.
  • Some examples of structured self-compassion exercises can be found here and here (self-compassion meditations by Dr. Kristin Neff).

Try this "Self-Compassion Antidote" exercise for home.

Step 1. Catalog your negative thoughts in writing. When you catch yourself thinking negative or self-critical thoughts, write them down. Categorize them into groups or topics.

Some people are afraid to write down these thoughts, out of fear of making them "real," but more often than not, people find that by writing down these thoughts onto paper, they are able to get an "observer distance" and see them more objectively. These negative thoughts can often loom larger in the mind than when cataloging them on paper.

Step 2. Try to observe these thoughts with a non-judgmental, gentle, compassionate attitude. It's important not to judge yourself for being self-critical. Observe your negative thoughts with a kind approach.

Step 3. Brainstorm specific antidote responses that can counteract these negative thoughts. For example, if a recurring thought is "I am not successful enough at ___ or ___." Try writing down an antidote thought such as "I don't always have to be perfect, and I know that I am actually good at doing ____ and ____."

Practice these self-compassion exercises regularly in order to help reduce depression and improve your mood. But if you find yourself missing a few days, don't be hard on yourself, and continue to keep trying to see what self-compassion practices fit your needs best.

Marlynn Wei, MD, PLLC © 2020

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