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The Benefits of Self-Compassion When You Live with Chronic Illness, Plus 13 Tips to Practice It

Living Well

March 29, 2024

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Illustration by Brittany England

Illustration by Brittany England

by Stephanie Orford

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD

•••••

by Stephanie Orford

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD

•••••

Do you speak to yourself like a friend? Self-compassion can benefit those with chronic illness by decreasing stress and inflammation. Here’s how to get started.

You Are Here: A series on mindfulness and chronic illness

There are plenty of challenges to being chronically ill. One powerful tool to help you cope is becoming chronically mindful. Whether you’re a seasoned meditator or you’re mindful-curious, You Are Here offers unique perspectives and simple strategies to connect more deeply with life, no matter what it throws your way.

Has mindfulness played a role in how you manage chronic illness? Share your story with us at editorial@bezzy.com.

“I should be perfect. Everybody else is dealing with their lives just fine, but I’m not. I should be able to handle this. I’m better than this. What’s wrong with me?”

Is this something you’d say to yourself?

Most of us experience thoughts like these from time to time when we’re stressed, and they can be especially frequent and intense if you have a chronic condition.

Self-compassion offers an alternative. Read on to learn how it can help you cope with chronic illness, plus how to practice it.

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How does self-compassion help with chronic disease?

“We’re often hard on ourselves when we’re struggling with something, especially with limitations in a chronic health condition,” says Fuschia Sirois, professor of social and health psychology at Durham University in the UK.

Sirois’ research focuses on self-compassion in people with chronic conditions.

“There’s a comparison to how things used to be, especially for people who are newly diagnosed. A lot of chronic conditions are really unpredictable, too,” Sirois says. “You never know when a flare is gonna come up, and it takes you by surprise. You think you’re doing so well, then it hits you really hard.”

A natural human response to these situations is to be hard on yourself.

“We suffer over our suffering,” Sirois explains. “Self-compassion teaches us to short-circuit that.”

How stress impacts health and disease

“Suffering over suffering” leads to unnecessary stress. Chronic stress can have harmful downstream effects on your physical health, with 75–90% of diseases related to stress.

Scientists are still unraveling the many ways stress can influence disease. It can directly alter your hormones and physiological functioning and may also lead to less healthy behavior.

For example, research from 2021 has found that stress had a small link with a higher intake of “unhealthy” foods and a lower intake of “healthy” foods, though the authors suggest other factors may be at play and more research is needed.

Chronic stress is linked to increased blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, according to a 2020 study.

A 2020 review notes that chronic stress can create changes in the body’s immune function and inflammatory response, promoting cancer development.

A 2023 study noted the “broad role of stress in the brain-gut axis” and its impact on several conditions characterized by chronic gastrointestinal symptoms. These included:

On the other hand, reducing stress with healthy coping methods like self-compassion may help reverse these trends.

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What are the health benefits of self-compassion?

Researchers are still investigating the benefits of self-compassion, but it may offer several.

May help reduce inflammation

According to Sirois’ work, people who are more self-compassionate tend to have lower stress levels and more resilience in the face of stressors. Lower stress is also related to lower markers of inflammation. 

This is important because chronic inflammation — including that caused by stress — can contribute to the development and severity of many chronic conditions, according to a 2017 review.

May help you cope better

A 2016 review suggests a relationship between self-compassion and reduced stress, though the authors note it’s difficult to draw conclusions about causation. Still, there is some evidence that self-compassion therapy plays a role in reducing the harmful effects of stress on the body.

Sirois’ work notes that people who are more self-compassionate often use problem-focused coping strategies, like planning, finding social support, and positive reframing. These strategies can reduce stress and lead to better health outcomes.

People who are self-compassionate also use more adaptive responses, including health-promoting behaviors like exercise and an intentional diet.

They also tend not to use avoidance strategies to escape problems.

May help with pain management

The effects of self-compassion vary from person to person. However, it may have beneficial effects when it comes to pain.

For example, one older study looked at self-compassion in people with obesity who had persistent musculoskeletal pain. Those who had higher levels of self-compassion also had better indicators of mental health. 

These included:

  • more energy
  • higher enthusiasm
  • greater alertness
  • increased feelings of control over their pain and ability to cope

Participants with high self-compassion also had lower negative effects of pain, including decreased negative affect or mood, pain catastrophizing, and pain disability.

May help with depression and anxiety

You’re at greater risk of experiencing anxiety, depression, or both when you have a chronic condition. In turn, anxiety and depression can affect your physical health and quality of life.

There’s a strong link between depressive symptoms and low self-compassion, according to 2016 evidence.

A 2021 analysis of 16 studies in people with chronic health conditions found a link between lack of self-compassion and increased anxiety and depression. Interestingly, people who worried more about their condition or felt a sense of shame were more susceptible to anxiety and depression if they had low self-compassion.

On the flip side, you may be able to lower your risk of anxiety and depression by practicing self-compassion, another 2021 review suggests.

How to practice self-compassion in everyday life

Importantly, the research shows that self-compassion isn’t just something you’re born with or not. You can actually develop it with practice and support.

When 2021 research compared the effects of several different types of self-compassion therapies, the researchers found that nearly all included therapies significantly increased self-compassion, but there was no clear superior method.

In other words, there isn’t just one effective way to practice self-compassion. There are many. Below are several ways to begin practicing self-compassion in everyday life.

1. Observe the stressor in a mindful way

Identify the stressor and your feelings with nonjudgmental language.

For example, “I’m having a flare, and I feel frustrated that it’s preventing me from doing what I want to.”

2. Practice viewing your negative feelings from a peaceful distance

Try this: “I’m feeling sad and angry right now, and that’s understandable.”

Keeping this perspective as emotions come up will help you avoid getting overwhelmed by fear, panic, or other negative feelings.

3. Practice kindness toward yourself

Speak (and think) to yourself with kind words, just as you would speak to a child or friend experiencing the same thing. Try to let go of self-criticism, but give yourself grace when that’s hard.

Remind yourself that you’re only human, after all.

4. Problem solve

Problem-solving can give you a sense of agency and help you restore confidence in yourself. It can move you from a sense of paralysis or helplessness into a space of “I can.”

You can try techniques like making a list of pros and cons, journaling to get to the bottom of your feelings, or enlisting a friend or professional for help.

5. Reframe the stressor

Reframe the stressor to make it feel less negative or threatening. For instance, if the issue is job loss, you can look at it as an opportunity to flex some of the other skills and strengths you weren’t able to in your previous role.

6. Recognize you’re not alone

Others have experienced what you’re experiencing and are feeling it right now, just like you are. Realizing this can help you feel less isolated.

In fact, there isn’t a single person who doesn’t experience pain or hurt from time to time.

7. Seek support

Connecting to a community or support group can take the idea that you’re not alone and make it real.

You can also seek compassion-focused therapy or a structured course like those offered by the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion

8. Don’t deny it

Sometimes avoiding the issue can help in the short term, but acceptance is a major part of mindfulness and self-compassion. We can move forward when we accept ourselves and our situation as we are.

Denial is a natural part of coping, especially with grief. However, it’s important at some point to move beyond it.

9. Replace negative thoughts

Try to become aware of your own negative inner script.

“You really can’t start practicing self-compassion until you become much more tuned in and aware of that negative script and that negative voice,” Sirois says. “Because that’s what keeps all those self-doubts and negativity going.”

One way to do this is to keep a journal when negative thoughts come up. You can then write a more compassionate response.

“Once you tune into that voice, then it makes it easier to think about how to replace that negative script with a more positive one,” Sirois says. “I don’t mean white-washing all the negative stuff. You’re not ignoring those negative feelings, but what you are doing is balancing.”

A self-compassionate inner script can neutralize negative feelings and offer kindness that can lift you up.

10. Talk to yourself like a friend

One way to develop your own compassionate inner script is to think about what you’d say to a friend in the same situation.

“Most people try to be compassionate toward their friends and loved ones when they make a mistake, feel inadequate, or suffer misfortune,” says an article published in World Psychiatry. “We tend to be much harsher with ourselves, however, saying cruel things that would never be said to a friend. Self‐compassion turns this around, allowing us to acknowledge shortcomings while accepting ourselves as flawed, imperfect human beings.”

11. Let go of perfectionism

Learning self-compassion is easier said than done.

Some people have a harder time accepting it, says Sirois. People who tend to be perfectionists can face internal conflict because practicing self-compassion feels like letting yourself off the hook, slacking, or holding yourself to a lower standard.

Even in her own research, Sirois has encountered this resistance.

“It has to do with the beliefs they have about what being self-compassionate means,” she says.

In a 2021 review including qualitative interviews of youth, the authors noted that 95% of respondents feared self-compassion might lead to decreased performance, and 35% associated self-compassion with being “weak” or “lazy.”

Although the study participants saw clear benefits, they said it would take a significant mindset shift to switch from anxiety-inducing self-criticism to being self-compassionate.

12. Give credit where credit is due

Sirois suggests identifying ways you’re already compassionate or kind toward yourself. It may help show you that you’re capable of self-compassion, and you can practice it in ways that don’t have to conflict with who you are or what you want to achieve.

Think about those times when you’ve taken breaks when you needed them, made efforts to lift your mood when you were feeling down, consciously relaxed after a long day, or booked yourself a well-deserved vacation.

These are likely examples that both increased your well-being and your ability to meet your goals.

13. Know that it might feel hard

When you first start practicing self-compassion, you might also have what researchers call “backdraft.”

This is a flood of negative thoughts and behaviors, including withdrawal or aggression, that some people experience in response to starting self-compassion practice.

Experts say backdraft happens because experiencing compassion opens up old memories, some of which may be traumatic.

It’s an important step in healing because it allows you to reprocess those old memories, but backdraft can make practicing self-compassion challenging at first.

Keep with it and go at your own pace. Consider working with a therapist who specializes in self-compassion work or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).

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Takeaway

Practicing self-compassion can benefit anyone, but it can be a particular salve for people with chronic conditions.

Start by recognizing your own negative inner script and consciously replacing it with compassionate self-talk. Try speaking to yourself the way you’d speak to a friend in the same situation.

You might revert to negative self-talk sometimes, especially during hard times. This is another opportunity to practice compassion and give yourself grace.

Learning self-compassion can be a bumpy road, and that’s OK.

Medically reviewed on March 29, 2024

15 Sources

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