On Sunday 10th October 2021 we celebrate World Mental Health Day. The World Health Organisation states that “mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life” and it is such an integral aspect of health that “there is no health without mental health” (WHO, 2018). Of course, being a psychologist, I totally agree!
Many factors negatively impact our mental health. Poor mental health is linked to stressful work conditions, gender discrimination, unhealthy lifestyle, physical ill-health and more (WHO, 2018). Additionally, as it has been widely reported, COVID-19 has also had a major impact on the mental health of many people.
Many people have been experiencing, and continue to experience, fear, stress and anxiety in relation to catching (or trying to recover from) the virus itself, or fear of family or friends catching it, and because of other related factors, including the detrimental economic factors (furlough, job loss, etc.), the social restrictions (lockdowns, social distancing) and other changes such as having to home-school children, or adjust to working from home. However, what this pandemic has helped us to appreciate is how important it is for all of us to take care of our mental health, rather than purely focusing on our physical health.
What is compassion?
One way we can take care of our mental well-being is to practice compassion. Compassion means being aware of the suffering in oneself and others and being motivated to alleviate that suffering. Hence, we can practice compassion towards others or towards ourselves, which is referred to as self-compassion.
The benefits of compassion
Much research has been carried out in the field of psychology on the impact to our mental well-being of practicing self-compassion. The research consistently supports that self-compassion is good for positive mental health, with people who have high levels of self-compassion demonstrating less anxiety, depression, stress and other symptoms relating to mental health issues (Muris, 2016).
The research also supports that people who score highly on self-compassion cope better with negative experiences than people with lower self-compassion scores (Stutts, Leary, Zeveney & Hufnagle, 2018). In addition, self-compassion has been found to have other positive impacts on our mental health, including experiencing greater happiness, optimism and satisfaction in life (Neff, 2003). There is also research demonstrating the benefit of compassion for others on psychological well-being (López, Sanderman, Ranchor, 2018).
Why compassion is good for mental health
Although there is a great body of research to support that self-compassion is good for mental health (and some research has been carried out into the impact of compassion on psychological well-being too), as with many psychological concepts, it has been more difficult to understand why this is the case. It is believed that one of the reasons why self-compassion is good for mental health is that in contrast to putting ourselves down, or judging oneself harshly for example, being self-compassionate is “a healthy way of relating” to ourselves (Inwood & Ferrari, 2018). It has also been suggested that self-compassion is good for mental health because it is a strategy that helps us regulate, that is effectively manage, our emotions (Stutts et al., 2018).
In addition, people who are compassionate towards themselves have been found to cause themselves less suffering because they do not personalise or catastrophise negative events, and they reduce any suffering they are experiencing by “treating themselves with greater care, concern, and kindness” which mentally soothes them (Stutts, et al., 2018). In other words, one of the reasons self-compassion helps our mental well-being is because “it helps people to feel safe and secure” (Neff, 2011).
When to practice self-compassion
When we are stressed our anxious, our sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” response, is triggered. Whilst this is vital when we need to run away from an actual threat (such as a stranger about to physically attack us), it is not helpful when the threat is a perceived one (such as our boss or a partner saying, “we need to talk”!) and rather than run away or avoid the situation, we need to be able to remain calm and clear headed and face the situation. This is when it can be useful to practice a self-compassion technique, as it will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and repair” or soothing system and help us with remaining calm and clear headed.
A simple self-compassion technique – Soothing Touch
The benefits of soothing, physical touch are well-established, including that when we experience physical touch (that is, physical touch that is actually wanted), oxytocin (sometimes known as the “love hormone”) is released in the body, which in turn soothes negative emotions like anxiety, for example (Neff, 2011).
So, first make sure you are somewhere you won’t be disturbed and ideally switch your phone off, or at least on to silent. Then start by taking a few deep breaths in and out.
Next, begin experimenting with what soothing touch you may find comforting and take your time with it as you do so.
You may like to try the following, noticing how comforted or soothed you feel as you go through each one: –
- Place a hand (or both hands) over your heart
- Place a hand (or both hands) over your stomach
- Give yourself a hug
- Slowly troke your arms
- Slowly stroke your hands
- Hold your hands and using your top thumb, gently stroke the thumb under it
When you have identified which soothing touch makes you feel the most comforted, practice it regularly to experience the most benefit from it. If your preferred soothing touch is one you only feel comfortable doing in private (such as giving yourself a hug), I recommend choosing another one that you can also use when you are in situations with other people, or in public places, that are more discreet! Alternatively, you can experiment with imagining you are using your preferred soothing touch in these situations, as visualisation is very powerful and has similar benefits.
If you had any difficulty with the soothing touch technique, or would like to learn more compassion techniques, do get in touch.
Inwood, E. & Ferrari, M. (2018). Mechanisms of Change in the Relationship between Self-Compassion, Emotion Regulation, and Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. 10.1111/aphw.12127
López, A., Sanderman, R., Ranchor, A.V. et al. (2018). Compassion for Others and Self-Compassion: Levels, Correlates, and Relationship with Psychological Well-being. Mindfulness (9),325–33. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0777-z
Muris, P. (2016). A protective factor against mental health problems in youths? A critical note on the assessment of self-compassion. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25, 1461-1465.
Neff, K.D. (2011). Self-compassion, self-esteem, and well-being. Social and Personality Compass, 5, (1), 1-12. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00330.x.
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: an alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85-102.
Stutts, L. A., Leary, M. R., Zeveney, A.S, & Hufnagle, A.S. (2018). A longitudinal analysis of the relationship between self-compassion and the psychological effects of perceived stress. Self and Identity,17(6), 609–626.
World Health Organisation. (2018). “Mental Health: Strengthening our response”. Retrieved from: