Can Self-Compassion Reduce Chronic Pain Severity?
Going through challenging chronic pain affects both your physical and mental health.
Self-compassion may not take priority in traditional medical fields, but…
…it is important and the effects on both your physical and mental wellbeing are widely supported and documented by neurology and psychology research.
Practicing self-compassion can significantly improve both your physical and mental health.
The Physiology of Self Compassion
when another being (human or other) experiences suffering we instinctively want to nurture them or help them feel better.
This is our mammalian caregiving system.
We activate it through soothing touch, vocalizations, and other tones or body language that demonstrate caring and being cared for.
These experiences bring feelings of contentment and peace to both the giver and receiver.
When we awaken our mammalian caregiving system, the threat defense system is turned off. It helps us feel safe and connected. These increased feelings of safety, trust and calm triggering the release of the hormone oxytocin, which has a natural anti-inflammation effect on the body.
Research shows that thoughts and emotions directed towards ourselves or others have the same affect. This means that whether you are caring for someone else or yourself, the hormones released are the same and that self-compassion can trigger the release of oxytocin.
In contrast, self-criticism, when applied beyond a constructive point has a very different effect on our bodies. Our nervous system interprets self-criticism as a threat causing our amygdala to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Prolonged periods of self-criticism can lead to an overstimulated and highly sensitized nervous system, which can increase the intensity of chronic pain.
Self-Compassion and Chronic Pain
Pain is termed as chronic when it is persistent and lasts for longer than three months. An estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide experience some form of chronic pain. Chronic pain negatively affects your life and leaves you prone to anxiety, depression, social isolation, and higher stress levels.
Self-compassion is a powerful tool in learning how to live a fuller life despite chronic pain and even alleviating its severity.
Most people can easily show compassion to others who are in pain or suffering but forget to do the same to themselves.
There are many layers to self-compassion including:
- recognizing your condition,
- acknowledging it without judgment,
- exercising patience as you figure it out,
- and extending warmth and kindness to yourself in the process.
By practicing self-compassion, you develop an awareness of how pain affects you emotionally, which helps you better understand your chronic pain’s psychological effects.
Self-compassion plays a critical part by promoting positive health habits such as; stress management, exercise, sleep patterns, and eating habits. One of the world’s leading researchers on self-compassion, Dr. Kirstin Neff lists three crucial elements of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness as opposed to self-judgment – Self-kindness lets you recognize that your pain and suffering is real, eliminating the frustration that stems from denial.
- Common humanity, as opposed to isolation – Accepting that suffering is a shared human experience, takes away the pressure of it being ‘only you.’
- Mindfulness as opposed to over-identification – A balanced approach of mindfulness helps you observe your feelings and reactions as they are without exaggerating or suppressing them.
Can You Learn Self-Compassion Through Yoga?
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1.33) states that practitioners can purify the mind and increase serenity through compassion (karuna) in the face of suffering. By being gentle with yourself and accepting your setbacks with compassion you gain wisdom and an enormous source of strength.
Yoga can be an essential tool in dealing with chronic pain. Different yoga postures teach you how to move your body, improve balance and increase flexibility despite sore muscles and joints while focusing on your breath. Yoga also helps by teaching you how to establish healthy breathing, how to relax consciously, and how to explore your mind’s inner workings calmly. These techniques strengthen your parasympathetic (rest and relax) nervous system reserving flight-or-fright responses for true emergencies. Yoga also teaches you how to use your breath as an indicator of your nervous system’s state. Through deep diaphragmatic breathing, you can achieve a sense of calm despite chronic pain.
Many of today’s popular natural therapies draw stress-reducing techniques from this ancient practice, such as pranayama (breathing practices), asana (controlled movement and stretching), and dhyana (meditation). For example, the deep and slow breaths utilized during yoga help to activate our rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) nervous systems. The result quiets anxious minds and soothes frazzled nerves, even in the midst of a difficult or uncomfortable pose. This is possible because of all the processes controlled by the autonomic nervous system such as heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure; only breathing can be controlled consciously.
Self-compassion both as a trait and as formal practice empowers you to act to alleviate your suffering in a kind manner. It helps in chronic pain management through cognitive acceptance, which is the willingness to experience the pain and behavioral acceptance that motivates you to continue acting despite the pain. In turn, by practicing self-compassion, you experience less depressive effects.