Anxiety Getting the Best of You? Try This Coping Strategy

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During these challenging times, when emotions tend to run high and change from moment to moment, a little compassion can go a long way. Not only can this kind of kindness benefit your interactions with others, but it may also help you manage any distress you feel. Really.

A practice called self-compassion has been shown to help reduce anxiety and depression, boost optimism, and even benefit your health. Put simply, self-compassion is “treating yourself with the same compassion, kindness, care, and support you would show to someone you care about,” explains. Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Self-compassion has three components that work together: kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Each of these runs on a spectrum from positive to negative, says Chelsey Holden, PhD, program coordinator and an assistant professor of school counseling in the School of Child and Family Sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi:

Positive Self BehaviorNegative Self Behavior
We can choose to offer kindness to ourselves.We can choose to judge ourselves.
We can choose to remember that we are part of a common humanity, which means to remember that all people struggle and know what it is like to hurt.We can choose to isolate and think that no one else could understand.
We can choose to mindfully recognize our experiences and what we can learn from them.We can choose to over-identify with those emotions and let them take over.

So how can kindness toward yourself help your mental health, particularly right now?

When we feel anxious, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in, and as our body goes into fight-or-flight mode, our levels of cortisol and adrenaline increase. Self-compassion, on the other hand, tips the scales in favor of the parasympathetic nervous system and taps into our mammalian care system, Neff explains. This leads to an increase in oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel safe, secure, and cared for. Self-compassion also decreases cortisol and increases heart rate variability. “This signals you are flexible and ready to respond” to any perceived threat, Neff explains.

Self-compassion may also help if you’ve been feeling down, as research shows it may help depressive symptoms and rumination. “Depression is linked to being self-critical,” Neff says. But the mindfulness aspect of self-compassion may help you “step outside” of yourself and gain a clearer perspective rather than getting lost in negative thinking, while the connection aspect can help you see you’re not the only one in your situation. Combine that with self-kindness, and you may be able to overcome that critical, repetitive judge in your head.

Both of these benefits apply to those diagnosed with anxiety and depression, as well as those experiencing everyday stressors, Neff adds.

Additionally, self-compassion may shift your mood. “When we feel threatened, we tend to focus on the negative to help us survive. We don’t even take in the positive because it’s not a threat,” Neff explains. “Because self-compassion reduces that negativity bias, we feel safer, and that allows us to be able to focus on positive things.” In turn, this may lead to more optimism, hope, and happiness.

But it’s not only our mental health that benefits from self-compassion. Neff says it may also lead to a better-functioning immune system, and research suggests it can help you stick to health-promoting behaviors, meaning you may take a walk rather than console yourself with a package of Oreos.

In the current climate, self-compassion can be a way to help validate your emotions, identify what you most need to support your emotional and physical health in the moment, and feel less isolated, Neff says. “When faced with a difficult time, we do better if the voice in our head is kind, warm, and encouraging,” she adds.

An easy way to practice self-compassion is to think about what you would say to a friend in your situation, as well as how you would say it. Try using the same tone and language to speak to yourself or write a letter to yourself.

It may help to think about the three aspects of self-compassion. For example, acknowledge that you are not the only one who feels the way you do or who is struggling with your challenges. Validate any emotions you feel, such as disappointment, fear, or anger, and then find a positive action you can take in the moment (like FaceTiming with a friend) or tomorrow (like limiting time on social media).

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