Dr Kristan Neff, who has been conducting research on self-compassion for the past decade has found that people who are compassionate to themselves rather than self critical are much less likely to be depressed, anxious and stressed, as well as far more likely to be happy, resilient and optimistic.

The reasons for this can in part be explain through the physiology of what happens when we soothe our own pain. When we are able to do this, we tap into our mammalian caregiving system, which leads to the release of the hormone oxytocin. Research has found that increased levels of oxytocin increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness,and facilitates the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves. On the other hand, when we are self critical, we trigger the fight-or-flight response, which leads to an increase in blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol, preparing the body to response physically to threat by either fighting or running away. However when the threat is internal (e.g. giving yourself negative messages), these responses are not appropriate and therefore the system can not be switched off. The result is that high levels of the hormones stay in the system with negative and toxic effects. Research has shown that self compassion when feeling under threat can lower cortisol levels, allowing the body and mind to heal.

Dr Neff however warms against taking a critical stance against our critical attitudes towards ourselves as she maintains that this attitude has developed as a strategy to keep ourselves safe. So rather than trying to suppress these thoughts which will lead to them increasing, we need to hear them and acknowledge what they are trying to do (keep us safe and loved). Then we can consciously work with them by giving ourselves different and more kind and loving messages.

Dr Neff recommends a number of processes to stimulate this system with self compassion. One way is through physical touch, so it can be through a hug, placing one hand over your heart, or any other kind of touch that feels soothing. Combined with this would be kind and supportive self talk, that acknowledges your humanity and accepts that mistakes are part of life.