Practicing Self-Compassion Can Boost Your Mental Health

New research looks into how mindfulness and compassion-focused therapy can help treat depression, anxiety and stress.

Marcin/Adobe Stock

Most American adults will experience stress, anxiety or depression at some point in their lives. Therapies that teach mindfulness and self-compassion may provide some relief. A new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, looks at whether focusing on self-compassion may be as effective as a mindfulness-based therapy for improving mental health.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) are two of the most widely used clinical approaches for treating depression, anxiety, and stress. The first, MBCT, is based on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and includes meditation, breath work, yoga, body scans, and practices to explore thoughts and increase mindfulness. On the other hand, CFT focuses on building compassion by incorporating practices for compassion and self-compassion, along with mindfulness exercises. 

Since both therapies are widely used, researchers wanted to learn whether CFT’s explicit instruction in compassion and self-compassion might yield different results for people experiencing depression, anxiety and stress compared to a mindfulness-based approach alone—although the researchers noted that nonjudgmental acceptance, which is part of the most widely-adopted definition of mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, “can be taken as indicating that compassion toward self and others and mindfulness are intrinsically linked.”

Can You Feel Better with Compassion?

The study took place at a residential rehabilitation and health clinic in Iceland. In addition to MBCT and CFT, the clinic also offers psychoeducation, fitness and exercises classes, acupuncture, and massage.

Of the 58 participating adult residents, 20 attended an MBCT group, another 18 joined a CFT group, and another 20 received no mindfulness-based treatment. MBCT and CFT group members were offered eight two-hour-long sessions over four consecutive weeks, and had to attend at least four sessions to receive an adequate “dose” of treatment.

Everyone completed a questionnaire about their experiences of depression, anxiety, and stress as well as mindfulness, self-compassion, and rumination at the beginning of the study. Four weeks later, only 42 participants—17 from the MBCT group, 13 from the CFT group, and 13 from the no-treatment control group—completed the same survey.

At the end of four weeks, both MBCT and CFT participants reported significantly less depression, anxiety, stress, and rumination, and increased mindfulness and self-compassion. The control group showed no change.

Getting Un-Stuck from Rumination

Because rumination—the tendency to get stuck in unpleasant thoughts—is common among people experiencing depression, anxiety, and stress, the researchers also looked to see if a person’s initial tendency to ruminate might be related to how mindful they were. They found that within the MBCT group, those who reported more rumination prior to treatment showed a bigger increase in mindfulness scores, compared to those who ruminated less.

This suggests that people who tend to get stuck in their thoughts may be better served by programs that include compassion and self-compassion training. 

Everyone in the CFT group showed increases in mindfulness—regardless of how much they tended to ruminate beforehand. This suggests that people who tend to get stuck in their thoughts may be better served by programs that include compassion and self-compassion training. 

Given the small number of participants, and the fact that the research took place in a residential treatment setting where other therapies were also offered, it is difficult to know whether the results of the study will apply to adults seeing a therapist on an outpatient basis, say the authors. Despite these limitations, the results do suggest that, for some, MBCT or CFT may ease depression, anxiety and stress, and the pernicious thoughts that feed them.