Meditation helps our mental health by boosting our self-compassion, study suggests

Posted by for Life

We all know meditation can help our mental health, but why? A study suggests it could help us to develop a particularly important skill: self-compassion.

As lockdown rolls on, we are all looking for ways to remain more calm and look after our mental health. For many, the picture of wellness is sitting cross legged with closed eyes, taking part in some kind of meditation.

After all, it’s pretty common knowledge that the practice of meditation – whether you plan time out in your morning or turn to it in the middle of your working day – is great for our mental health.

For a long time, however, the reason why meditation is so beneficial for our wellbeing has remained a mystery. Little has been known about what really happens when we sit down and meditate – and why that practice is so beneficial for our mental health.

That is, until this year. In a study published in the Journal Of Clinical Psychology in January, researchers have identified why consistent meditation practice tends to have a positive impact on our mental health – and it’s all to do with the development of one essential skill: self-compassion.

The research, which was conducted by a team of researchers at the Pontifical University of Salamanca in Spain, looked at the outcomes of meditation for 828 people, consisting of 414 “meditators” and 414 “non-meditators”. 

To do this, the participants filled in questionnaires which measured self-compassion. As is to be expected, they found that meditation was positively associated with mental health – and used their results to hypothesize exactly why this might be.

A woman meditating
Meditation could help us to develop our self-compassion, an essential skill for dealing with difficult periods.

According to the study, meditation has the potential to develop and boost our levels of self-compassion, which then puts the framework in place for other healthy “mechanisms” to grow, such as the ability to experience greater meaning from life and the strength to stop avoiding difficult conversations and experiences.

“After reviewing some of the contributions of previous research on this subject, we proposed that three variables could play an important role,” the study’s lead author José Ramon Yela said. “[These include] the capacity for self-compassion; experiencing that life has meaning – that is, that there are valuable and important things in life and valuable objectives to pursue; and finally, reducing the extent to which a person avoids thoughts, emotions or experiences that may be unpleasant but are part of his or her life.”

Self-compassion is, essentially, the ability we have to be compassionate and caring towards ourselves. Instead of negative self-talk – in which we may tell ourselves we need to change because we’re “bad” or “not good enough” – self-compassion is all about being nice to ourselves and our situation. Practicing this is more important than ever right now, as the world is turned upside down.  

As Dr Kristin Neff writes for Self Compassion, when you have self-compassion, “you may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness.”

A woman meditating
Self-compassion allows us to “honor and accept” our humanness.

Self-compassion can also be split into three components: the ability to be kind towards yourself and be less self-critical, the ability to recognise that the human experience is never plain sailing and difficult moments are a part of life, and the ability to be aware of unsettling or upsetting emotions and negative feelings and let them pass without ruining their day.

In this way, then, meditation can help us to nurture a kind inner-voice to help guide us through the inevitable difficult patches which crop up every now and then – so it’s no surprise that it can help with our mental health.

After all, according to the latest statistics from Mind, one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, with one in six people in England reporting experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. 

In this way, it’s completely normal to experience rough patches and reach out for help when we need it – so having that ability to be kind to ourselves and avoid negative self-talk is an essential skill we should all be looking to develop. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines here.

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