Study: Switching off the body’s threat response by calming the heart rate in self-compassion exercises can have psychological and physical benefits

Study: Switching off the body’s threat response by calming the heart rate in self-compassion exercises can have psychological and physical benefits. Photo credit:

(PRESS RELEASE) EXETER, 7-Feb-2019 — /EuropaWire/ — New research funded by the Compassionate Mind Foundation and carried out by Exeter and Oxford Universities suggests that taking time to think kind thoughts about yourself and your loved ones can have psychological and physical benefits.

The study is called “Soothing Your Heart and Feeling Connected: A New Experimental Paradigm to Study the Benefits of Self-Compassion” and has been published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science. 

Switching off the body’s threat response by calming the heart rate in self-compassion exercises is the main thesis of the study conducted by the two universities. The threat response of the body can damage the immune system, according to previous studies, and scientists believe the ability to switch off this response may lower the risk of disease.

135 healthy students from the University of Exeter took part in the research where they had been split on five groups. The different groups were given to listen to 11 minutes long audio recordings with set of instructions, different for each of the groups. The team, carrying out the research, took physical measurements of heart rate and sweat response, and asked participants to report how they were feeling during the tests.

Two of the groups (out of five) listened to instructions that encouraged them to be kind to themselves and the results observed for the members of the group showed a bodily response consistent with feelings of relaxation and safety. Both their heart rates and sweat response were lower.

The recordings that encouraged self-compassion were a “compassionate body scan” in which member of the group were guided to attend to bodily sensations with an attitude of interest and calmness and a “self-focused loving kindness exercise” in which they directed kindness and soothing thoughts to a loved one and themselves.

At the same time, the audio recordings with instructions that induced a critical inner voice led to an increased heart rate and a higher sweat response resulting in feelings of threat and distress.

Those audio recordings, listened by the three other groups, were designed to induce a critical inner voice and had put them into a “positive but competitive and self-enhancing mode”, or an emotionally neutral shopping scenario.

While the students in both the self-compassion and positive but competitive groups reported greater self-compassion and decreased self-criticism, only the self-compassion groups showed the positive bodily response.

Dr Hans Kirschner, University of Exeter:

“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.”

Dr Anke Karl, University of Exeter:

“Previous research has found that self-compassion was related to higher levels of wellbeing and better mental health, but we didn’t know why. Our study is helping us understand the mechanism of how being kind to yourself when things go wrong could be beneficial in psychological treatments. By switching off our threat response, we boost our immune systems and give ourselves the best chance of healing. We hope future research can use our method to investigate this in people with mental health problems such as recurrent depression.”

Dr Hans Kirschner is the first author of the research while Dr Anke Karl was the lead researcher. Both researchers are from the University of Exeter.

Co-author Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford:

“These findings help us to further understand some of our clinical trials research findings, where we show that individuals with recurrent depression benefit particularly from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy when they learn to become more self-compassionate. My sense is that for people prone to depression, meeting their negative thoughts and feelings with compassion is a radically different way – that these thoughts are not facts. It introduces a different way of being and knowing that is quite transformative for many people.”

The researchers, however, point out at the fact that this study was conducted with healthy people and the same results and findings might not be valid for people with depression. The ability to directly repair mood or distress has not been studied in the current research.

SOURCE: University of Exeter


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