Children, Teens, and Families

How does self-compassion protect depressed adolescents? Quieting the self may be the key.

Excessive focus on one’s own negative aspects can have harmful effects, such as depression. It is especially so for adolescents, because they are more vulnerable to peers’ negative appraisals. We all remember that when we were teenagers, we were prone to be influenced by such negative views. As a result, adolescents have higher risk for depression. According to a national survey, 13% of U.S. teens has experienced depression in the past year. In this case, it is important to identify certain psychological factors that buffer the harmful effects of negative self-focus. Self-compassion may be such a factor.

Self-compassion is a cognitive and emotional strategy involving self-kindness, recognition of common humanity and mindfulness in face of negative events. Self-compassionate people tend to have lower level of depression and self-compassion interventions effectively reduces depression. However, little is known about the underlying neural mechanisms. Because excessive negative self-focus contributes to depression, our study investigated how self-compassion modulates brain activity when adolescents recognize their own sad face and whether it relates to depression severity. The study was recently published in Psychological Medicine.

In the brain-imaging scanner, depressed and healthy youth identified whether morphed self’s or other’s (a stranger’s) face with sad, happy, or neutral expression looks like their own. We found that self-compassionate youth show less activity in brain regions previously found activated during self-blame and over-identification with one’s experience. Self-compassionate depressed youth also show less activity in a region previously found activated during recognizing one’s own face and associated with cognitive control or rumination. More importantly, less activity in this region further relates to lower depression severity. These findings suggest that self-compassion quiets the self- and rumination-related brain activity, which protects depressed adolescents. Intriguingly, when viewing other’s sad face, self-compassionate healthy youth show more – rather than less – activity in brain regions associated with empathy. These findings suggest that self-compassionate youth dwell less on their own distress but are more empathic to other’s one.

Our study sheds a light on the neural mechanisms by which self-compassion protects depressed adolescents. It also has implications for healthy youth and adults to develop a healthier mind via cultivating compassion towards themselves.

Guanmin Liu

CMSC Guest Author

Dr. Guanmin Liu is a postdoc at University of Alberta. He formerly worked at University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Minnesota. He studies the cognitive and neural mechanisms of positive social emotions, especially gratitude and self-compassion, and their effects on improving mental health, facilitating prosocial behavior, and reducing intergroup bias.

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