Self-Compassion to Soothe Your Nervous System
Updated: Jun 4, 2021
As modern humans we're still wired for primitive forms of survival. This means that we spend more time and energy focusing on threats than on staying calm.
If you realize that you're on the verge of getting fired, then you're more likely to start a job hunt than to take 30 minutes to meditate. Our ancestors survived because when their livelihood was at risk they migrated or created a new tool instead of eating their remaining food and walking around mindfully.
Being a well-adjusted human being now requires that we use our survival instincts in a sustainable way. We thrive with self-compassion because we gracefully help ourselves do better with hardships.
The Elements of Self-Compassion
There are things we say to ourselves that we would never say to someone else. We have to be careful with what we say to ourselves because we're always listening. When we treat ourselves like we'd treat a good friend we're practicing self-compassion.
There are three elements to self-compassion according to a pioneer in the field of self-compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff: kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Having these three elements in a moment of distress unlocks a capacity to lessen suffering.
Kindness is about holding space for a difficult experience while treating it gently in an effort to move to a better place. For example, with kindness you're able to start walking at your own pace after getting injured from a bad fall.
Common humanity involves looking at the big picture. It's not about comparing yourself to others to see who's winning the suffering Olympics. The point here is to recognize that you're not alone and someone else in your shoes would probably be feeling like you're feeling.
Mindfulness according to the professor of medicine and mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and without judgment. You're not trying to determine whether you're a good or bad person when trying to be self-compassionate. You approach yourself with unconditional positive regard and accept what is.
Our Nervous System and Self-Compassion
The mind and the body are intricately connected. I was daydreaming at work after a vacation of the time my family and I went to the beach and I felt my shoulders come down and my facial muscles relax unintentionally. This is why our thoughts can create our reality.
A study in Brandeis University in the United States in 2015 by Breines et al showed that adults that score higher in self-compassion have a lower sympathetic nervous system response, meaning we're less likely to become overpowered by fight-or-flight with higher scores on self-compassion.
Sports can be a great metaphor for life since we win some and we lose some. A study in the University of Manitoba in Canada in 2019 by Ceccarelli et al illustrated that the levels of self-compassion in elite athletes predicted their parasympathetic nervous system activation under the stress of remembering a performance failure. Those who were more self-compassionate were more adaptive to stress.
Apply It to Your Life
Now that you know what the elements of self-compassion are and how it can benefit your nervous system, what can you do? Become a best friend to yourself.
You can use these words of affirmation with a gentle tone and a soothing touch (e.g., hand over your chest, giving yourself a hug or stroking your arm) the next time you find yourself in need of some compassion: "I know you're not feeling like your best self at all right now. It's so tough to love life after something like that happens, but I have your back. I'm here for you and I'm not going anywhere. People struggle with this feeling all the time. We're going to get through this just like we have so far." Feel free to personalize it.