Self-compassion decreases risk of cardiovascular disease in women

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Middle-aged women who practice self-compassion have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, even if they have high blood pressure, insulin resistance and cholesterol levels, according to a new study.

Published in the journal Health Psychology, the study investigated whether mindfulness and self-compassion techniques, typically known for effectively managing anxiety, irritability, and mild depression, had any physiological effects on the body.

Rebecca Thurston, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, and a team of researchers tested the hypothesis that greater self-compassion would be associated with less subclinical cardiovascular disease (CVD) as assessed by carotid intima-media thickness (IMT).  

The researchers enrolled approximately 200 women between the ages of 45 and 67. The women completed a questionnaire asking them to rate how often they experience feelings of inadequacy, whether they often feel disappointed by their self-perceived flaws, or if they grant themselves caring and tenderness during difficult times. Participants also received a standard diagnostic ultrasound of their carotid arteries.

The study found that women who scored higher on the self-compassion scale had thinner carotid artery walls and less plaque build up than those with lower self-compassion. These indicators have been linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease years later. Even when researchers controlled for behaviors and other factors that might influence cardiovascular disease outcomes, such as physical activity, smoking, and depressive symptoms, the results persisted, researchers said.

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