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Self-Compassion Is Heart Healthy

Light Up Francine

Practicing self-compassion is heart healthy. Practicing self-compassion is heart healthy.

By John Salak

Taking it easy on yourself is probably pretty good advice for just about everyone. But it may be especially beneficial for middle-aged women who are interested in offsetting a whole range of serious health issues. 

Self-directed kindness, admittedly, isn’t a carte blanche remedy for what does or may ail someone. But the notion may prove to be more than feelgood avuncular wisdom dished out at times of tension. In fact, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh claim that middle-aged women who practiced self-compassion lowered their risk of developing cardiovascular disease, irrespective of other traditional risk factors such as high blood pressure, insulin resistance and cholesterol levels.  

“A lot of research has been focused on studying how stress and other negative factors may impact cardiovascular health, but the impact of positive psychological factors, such as self-compassion, is far less known,” explained Rebecca Thurston, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, clinical and translational science, epidemiology, and psychology at the university.  

Thurston and her team looked to rectify this knowledge gap recently, which is particularly important given that U.S. adults are increasingly turning to mindfulness practices to relieve stress brought about by work, personal relationships and, of course, the continuing pandemic.

The emotional impact of the pandemic is believed to be particularly stressful for women, who are likely to have borne the brunt of caring for children and older or infirmed family members during the shutdown. Practicing mindfulness and self-compassion, of course, are nothing new, even if they were engaged under fewer new-age names. Counselors and clinical psychologists have suggested these approaches for years to treat chronic stress, manage anxiety, irritability and even mild depression. 

What was less known until now was whether self-compassion had any physiological impacts. The Pittsburgh team discovered it did after working with almost 200 women ages 45 and 67. These women rated how often they felt inadequate or disappointed in themselves and whether they eased off on themselves during these times. The participants also received a standard diagnostic ultrasound of their carotid arteries during the study. 

Apparently being kind to yourself yields benefits. The university’s team found that women who scored higher on the self-compassion scale had thinner carotid artery walls and less plaque buildup than those with lower self-compassion. This is important because thinner artery walls and less plaque are linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes.  

Neither Thurston nor her team members argued that self-compassion is the prime driver to better cardiovascular health, among other issues. Numerous other factors come into play, all of which may require different pre-emptive and reaction responses and treatments. Diet, for example, remains a critical factor. Middle-aged men and women should eat more whole grains to maintain their health as they age.  

Tufts University researcher underscored the importance of diet recently when it revealed that research showed adults who ate at least three servings of whole grains each day reduced their waist size, blood pressure and blood sugar levels over times compared to individuals who consumed less than a half serving every day. Nonetheless, the ability to effectively self-regulate chronic stress through self-compassion could have significant short- and long-term effects for at-risk individuals and related non-pharmaceutical treatments.  

“These findings underscore the importance of practicing kindness and compassion, particularly towards yourself,” said Thurston. “We are all living through extraordinarily stressful times, and our research suggests that self-compassion is essential for both our mental and physical health.” 

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