When women practice self-compassion, their hearts benefit

I’ve been trying to write the introduction to this blog post for an hour now, with no luck.

Normally, I’d wonder what was wrong with me. Why am I so out of focus? How hard could this topic be?

Today, though, I went upstairs and took an hour-long nap.

Why am I telling you this?

Because I’ve decided to show myself a little compassion. I’ve learned from current research that by doing so, I’ve not only made it possible to complete my work with a clear mind, but I’ve engaged in a self-care habit that science says could make my heart healthier…

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How much can self-care practices really do?

If you’ve cracked open a magazine or gotten online, you’ve surely seen lots of terms you might chalk up to New Age fads or practices, like “self-care” and “mindfulness.”

You may have even wondered what kind of benefits they might offer you and if it’s worth looking into.

Mindfulness practice is a tool that counselors and clinical psychologists often suggest to clients who are dealing with chronic stress. These techniques are effective for managing anxiety, irritability, and even mild depression — things most of us experience from time to time.

But beyond learning to manage stressors or dealing with difficult situations — one component of mindfulness known as self-compassion has been shown to have the potential to lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Women who practice self-compassion lower their risk for heart disease

Dr. Rebecca Thurston is a professor of psychiatry, clinical and translational science, epidemiology, and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Various studies show that stressors, especially for women, have been amplified by the ongoing pandemic. They are often the ones to care for children and older relatives, and women compose much of the nursing workforce in the United States.

“A lot of research has been focused on studying how stress and other negative factors may impact cardiovascular health, but the impact of positive psychological factors, such as self-compassion, is far less known,” said Rebecca Thurston, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, clinical and translational science, epidemiology, and psychology at Pitt.

To get some answers, Dr. Thurston and her colleagues enrolled almost 200 women between the ages of 45 and 67 in their study.

The women completed a short questionnaire asking them to rate how often they experience feelings of inadequacy, whether they often feel disappointed by their self-perceived flaws or if they grant themselves caring and tenderness during difficult life moments.

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They also underwent a diagnostic ultrasound of their carotid arteries (the carotid artery is the major blood vessel in the neck that carries blood from the heart to the brain).

Even after controlling for factors like physical activity and smoking, the researchers found that self-compassion was associated with lower risk of heart disease — irrespective of other traditional risk factors such as high blood pressure, insulin resistance and cholesterol levels.

Women who scored higher on the self-compassion scale had thinner carotid artery walls and less plaque buildup, two indicators that are linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke, even years later.

How do I practice self-compassion?

According to Dr. Kristin Neff, who defined and began studying self-compassion two decades ago, it is composed of three core elements:

  • Self-kindness – involves being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, much like we would for a good friend
  • Common humanity – recognizing that suffering or feeling inadequate are things everyone goes through
  • Mindfulness – the ability and willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions openly and without judgment

So, what does practicing self-compassion look like, in real life?

  • Giving yourself what you need in any given moment to alleviate stress in a healthy way
  • Finding healthy ways to cope with physical or emotional pain
  • Reaching out to others for help

That sounds great, you may be thinking, but how do I DO all that?

Here are a few things you’ll want to consider trying. Remember, you’re not only improving your state of mind, but improving your heart health, too.

Relieve stress and even depression with yoga

Start a meditation practice

Enjoy a soak in the tub regularly

Experience the benefits of leisure time

Enjoy the natural stress relief of nature

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Sources:

Women who practice self-compassion are at lower risk of cardiovascular disease — Science Daily

Self-compassion and subclinical cardiovascular disease among midlife women. — Health Psychology

Definition of self-compassion  — self-compassion.org

The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion — mindful.org

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Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.