“Think kind thoughts and call me in the morning” may seem like an odd prescription, but it’s gaining traction as an effective way to improve your health.
But could more compassionate thoughts have a positive impact on health?
To find out, researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Oxford conducted a new study that adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that kinder, gentler thoughts can indeed offer important mental and physical benefits.
Study details: The researchers divided 135 college students into five groups—each receiving different 11-minute audio recordings that conveyed a range of negative, self-critical messages versus positive, self-compassionate messages.
Not surprisingly, the group that heard instructions to think critically about themselves had increased heart rates and higher sweat responses—both markers for feelings of threat and distress. By comparison, the group that was encouraged to adopt thoughts of “loving kindness,” in which they focused kind and soothing thoughts on a loved one and on themselves, had a positive physical response—their heart rates and sweat responses slowed by two or three beats per minute, on average.
“These findings suggest that being kind to oneself switches off the threat response and puts the body in a state of safety and relaxation that is important for regeneration and healing,” explains study lead study author Hans Kirschner, PhD, a graduate fellow at the University of Exeter.
This research, published in Clinical Psychological Science, gives insight into why people with recurrent depression, for example, seem to benefit from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy that teaches them to become more self-compassionate, according to the study authors.
Caveat: Because the research included only healthy participants, it does not prove that people with depression would benefit from a single self-compassion exercise, as used in the study. However, the researchers believe that a more self-compassionate way of thinking, in general, could be “quite transformative” for many people.
More research is planned to investigate the physiological responses and mood improvement that individuals with recurrent depression may derive from self-compassion practices.
To give self-compassion a try: Notice negative thoughts you have about yourself throughout your day…and replace them with a more positive, self-compassionate message. Even though this may not be easy at first, it will likely become more natural with daily practice.