Previous research, as reported by the Washington Post, has indicated that human beings are “wired for kindness,” and that our capacity for compassion grows over time and with practice.
Being kind boosts both mental and physical health, according to a new University of Exeter study.
Published in in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, and authored by Hans Kirschner, Willem Kuyken, Kim Wright, Claire Brejcha, Henrietta Roberts, and Anke Karl, “Soothing Your Heart and Feeling Connected: A New Experimental Paradigm to Study the Benefits of Self-Compassion” adds to the growing body of work pertaining to physical and psychological benefits of self-compassion.
For the study, University of Exeter researchers recruited 135 healthy students. The participants were divided into five different groups. Members of each group listened to a different set of pre-recorded audio instructions. The audio recordings were developed in collaboration with an experienced mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) therapist. Each recording was 11 minutes long. Some – assigned to two different groups – encouraged kindness and self-compassion, while the rest were designed to induce a critical inner voice.
In order to asses the impact of audio recordings, the researchers took a number of physical measurements. The participants’ heart rates (considered an indicator of physiological arousal), high-frequency heart-rate variability (indicates “parasympathetic activation and adaptive physiological regulation capacity”), and skin conductance levels (applied as a measure of physiological defense response) were recorded and then analyzed.
Next, the participants were asked a series of questions in order to determine how connected they felt to others, and how likely they were to be kind to themselves.
The two groups that had listened to audio instructions encouraging kindness reported feeling connected to others, and more self-compassion. The bodily response confirmed the findings. The two groups that had listened to kind and encouraging audio recordings showed a bodily response “consistent with feelings of relaxation and safety.” Their heart rates dropped, and they showed a lower sweat response.
“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,” lead researcher Dr. Anke Karl explained in a press release.
Study co-author Willem Kuyken added the following.
“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.”
Like all studies, the latest University of Exeter study includes some limitations. The authors noted that the study was conducted in healthy people, which means that the findings might not apply to those suffering from depression and similar mental disorders. Further research is needed to address this.