Self-Compassion May Help Fight Inflammation

A study recently published in the Journal of Brain, Behaviour and Immunity reveals an interesting link between our view of ourselves and our levels of interleukin-6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine instrumental in the human inflammatory response. 

The study took 41 healthy, adult participants and exposed them to some psychosocial stressors that most of us find pretty nerve-wracking: maths and public speaking. After performing the tasks, all undertaken in front of judges, their blood was drawn and analysed for the presence of the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-6 [1]. The findings were interesting:

“It turned out that the group with the highest measured levels of self-compassion before the study—the ones who had acceptance of themselves—had the lowest IL-6 (inflammation) response to the stress [2].”

Why does this study matter? Research has revealed that “psychosocial stress has been shown to elicit an inflammatory cascade similar to that elicited by illness or injury… Although properly regulated inflammation is required and adaptive in certain contexts, elevated levels of inflammation can increase the risk of a range of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease [1].”

Other research cited by the authors of the study reveals that “psychosocial stress is especially likely to elicit increased peripheral inflammation, as well as other potentially maladaptive biological responses, when it involves threats to the self encountered in social evaluative contexts.” What does this mean? If the situation involves other people witnessing our stress, and we interpret it as threatening, our body increases inflammatory markers.

There are other studies that have shown a link between self-threat and inflammation. Specifically, research showed an increase in tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF- α) when specific stressors (i.e. public speaking or maths tasks) were carried out in front of people. Nasty business indeed.

Interestingly, increased inflammatory markers were not noted in participants who carried out the tasks without anyone watching [1]. So there you go: it appears tanking at a difficult maths equation has more repercussions if someone sees you do it.

It turns out the participant’s internal responses to the psychosocial stressor had a significant bearing on inflammatory markers. In a world where psychosocial stress seems more pervasive than ever before, this study provides some insight into at least one mental protective factor we can all benefit from.

Enter the concept of self-compassion. While it sounds a lot like self-esteem, it is actually quite distinct, and appears significant in a physical and mental/emotional sense.

So, what is self-compassion anyway? Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in this field of research, has some words of wisdom on the topic. “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect? [3]”

She goes on to contrast self-compassion with self-esteem. At its heart, self-esteem is how much we like ourselves, or perceive ourselves as valuable. Neff argues that self-compassion isn’t based on such evaluations. Rather, it’s based on a belief that “all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself [4].”

For the sake of the study, self-compassion was defined as a self-attitude that involves “treating oneself with kindness and nonjudgmental understanding [1].” An individual with healthy self-compassion is likely to experience reduced levels of shame and self-criticism. They may also be less emotionally reactive in heightened situations.

It turns out this trait has the potential to reduce the level to which a stressor is viewed and experienced as threatening. Additionally, the study suggests it may weaken the length and level of the inflammatory response that follows the threat. The authors concluded the following:

“Individuals who are higher in self-compassion may be buffered from increased inflammation following unfamiliar psychosocial stress, whereas individuals who are lower in self-compassion may be especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of this form of stress.

Efforts to help people cope more effectively with acute stress and reduce disease risk should seek not only to relieve negative emotions and appraisals but also to foster positive emotional states such as self-compassion.”

So there you have it. The age-old wisdom that tells us not to be so hard on ourselves could be worth more than face value. It can actually go a long way to keeping us healthier.