Self-compassion - Relationship with mindfulness, emotional stress symptoms and psychophysiological flexibility
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How we relate to ourselves when facing negative emotions may impact on our psychological health. Drawn from Buddhist psychology, self-compassion involves treating oneself kindly in times of suffering and remembering that failure and imperfection is part of the shared human condition. Converging evidence shows higher levels of dispositional self-compassion to associate with lower levels of selfreported emotional stress symptoms, such as depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms and rumination. Self-compassion is suggested to be closely related to mindfulness, another Buddhist concept, and is proposed as a key mechanism explaining why individuals who are mindful tend to be less depressed. Less research has examined how self-compassion relates to psychophysiological functioning, for instance by using biomarkers of autonomic flexibility such as vagally mediated heart rate variability. The purpose of this thesis was thus to examine how self-compassion relates to emotional stress symptoms, mindfulness, and psychophysiological flexibility as indexed by vagally mediated heart rate variability in healthy adults. The overall hypothesis was that self-compassion would specifically protect against emotional stress symptoms.
In the first paper, we examined whether self-compassion could explain the well-established link between high levels of mindfulness and lower levels of depressive symptoms. We also included rumination, as a hypothesized counterpart to self-compassion, as another potential mediator of the mindfulness-depressive symptoms relationship. Our main hypothesis was thus that higher levels of selfcompassion and lower levels of rumination would mediate the relationship between higher levels of mindfulness and lower levels of depressive symptoms. The sample consisted of 277 healthy university students. They filled out the “Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire” (FFMQ), “Self-Compassion Scale” (SCS), Rumination subscale of the “Reflection Rumination Questionnaire” (RRQ), and the Depression subscale of the “Symptom Checklist-90 Revised” (SCL-90-R-dep). The results were consistent with our hypothesis, showing that both higher levels of self-compassion and lower levels of rumination mediated the relationship between mindfulness and depressive symptoms. The results suggest that mindfulness may exert its effect on reduced depressive symptoms both through promoting a compassionate way of relating to oneself, as well as reducing the tendency to ruminate about negative thoughts and feelings.
In the second paper, we examined whether dispositional self-compassion is associated with vagally mediated heart rate variability (vmHRV), a proposed biomarker of autonomic flexibility. We had four hypotheses. First, we expected that higher levels of dispositional self-compassion would positively associate with higher levels of vmHRV measured during a five-minute resting condition. Second, we expected that the relationship between dispositional self-compassion and vmHRV would persist even when controlling for trait anxiety and rumination. Third, to validate that the proposed relation between higher self-compassion and higher vmHRV was representative of participants’ everyday lives, we expected that higher levels of self-compassion would associate with higher levels of a 24-hour measure of vmHRV in a subsample of the participants. Finally, we expected to replicate previous study findings that self-compassion associates with lower trait anxiety and rumination. The sample consisted of 53 healthy university students. They completed the SCS, FFMQ, the rumination subscale of the RRQ, and the trait subscale of the “State-Trait Anxiety Inventory” (STAI). In addition, their heart rate variability was measured during a five-minute resting electrocardiogram, and the subsample (N=26) wore heartrate monitors for 24 hours. The results supported our hypotheses, showing that higher dispositional self-compassion positively related with higher resting and 24-hour vmHRV. This relation was found to persist when controlling for trait anxiety and rumination. Further, dispositional self-compassion also inversely related to trait anxiety and rumination. The results suggest that individuals with high tendencies to treat themselves compassionately are better able to physiologically adapt emotional responses.
In the third paper, we aimed to disentangle the effects of dispositional selfcompassion and mindfulness on vmHRV. Drawing from previous study findings that self-compassion exceeds mindfulness in predicting self-reported outcome measures such as depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms, we hypothesized that self-compassion would explain variance in vmHRV beyond mindfulness. We also expected to replicate the previous study findings using self-reported outcome measures of trait anxiety and rumination. The sample was identical to the one used in paper II and consisted of 53 healthy university students who completed the SCS, FFMQ, the rumination subscale of the RRQ, and the trait subscale of the STAI. Resting vmHRV was measured during a five-minute resting electrocardiogram. The results were consistent with our hypotheses, indicating that dispositional selfcompassion predicted variance in vmHRV beyond what was predicted by mindfulness. Self-compassion also predicted variance above mindfulness in trait anxiety and rumination. This suggests that being more self-compassionate relates to better psychophysiological regulation above and beyond the effects of being mindful, pointing to self-compassion as an important buffer against psychophysiological stress reactivity.
Together, the findings support the emerging picture of self-compassion as a healthy way of self-responding, facilitating psychological and physiological functioning.