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Preliminary Research on the Role of Self-Compassion During the COVID Pandemic

As we begin a new year still in the midst of a global pandemic, it is important to remember what can buoy us through the ongoing uncertainty, loss, and hardship. While we may be looking ahead to the next 12 months with a mix of anticipation and apprehension, we can rest assured that within us lies an essential resource for our coping and wellbeing.

Evidence from the latest research demonstrates how self-compassion can foster our resilience during the tumultuous conditions of the COVID pandemic that persists around the globe. Findings from studies in Hong Kong, Spain, Israel, Iran, and Austria illustrate the range of ways self-compassion can soothe us when we are hurting as well as guide us to take actions that promote our healing and interconnected wellbeing. 

For individuals in Hong Kong, self-compassion appears to diminish the link between the perceived threat of COVID and psychological distress (Lau et al., 2020).

In this way, self-compassion acts as a protective buffer that makes the threat of COVID less damaging to one’s peace of mind. Additionally, individuals with greater self-compassion are more likely to perceive potential benefits from the circumstances of the pandemic. This means that self-compassionate individuals acknowledged more opportunity for growth, rest, and connection as a result of COVID. Self-compassion may have helped people in Hong Kong see the possibilities still available within the limitations and uncertainties of the pandemic. 

In Spain, people with higher levels of self-compassion reported lower levels of anxiety, depression, stress, emotional avoidance, and intrusive thoughts (Jiménez et al., 2020).

In contrast, meditation practice was not associated with relief from psychological distress. This suggests that the presence of compassion for ourselves is important for our emotional wellness, whether or not we have a meditation practice. Furthermore, self-compassionate individuals in Spain were more likely to report better experiences of cohabitation during periods of confinement to their homes. Self-compassion may have created better living environments by encouraging honest communication and respectful boundaries rooted in knowing one’s own needs. 

Self-compassion is also helpful for individuals experiencing more specialized concerns, such as pregnancy during a pandemic (Taubman-Ben-Ari et al., 2020).

For example, pregnant women in Israel with greater self-compassion had less fear and anxiety around their impending childbirth during a health crisis. Despite the interference of social distancing and quarantine on social connection, having a stronger sense of social support seemed to strengthen the effect of self-compassion as a protection against the fear of childbirth. Self-compassion is a practice that keeps us connected to others, and these findings suggest that our relationships with others may bolster our self-compassion, contributing to even greater wellbeing. 

In addition to lessening stress and fear, research in Iran suggests that self-compassion is associated with healthy preventative behaviors (Mohammadpour et al., 2020).

Individuals in Iran who had greater self-compassion reported reduced fears about COVID. Importantly, the people with highest self-compassion were also more likely to adhere to regular handwashing, which is a behavior associated with lower risk of contracting the virus and increased likelihood of protecting others. We can view handwashing as both an act of self-compassion and compassion for others. We honor our own health by protecting ourselves from potential illness, and we honor the health of others by increasing our capacity to prevent the spread.

Lastly, a study conducted in Austria evaluated the effects of a 14-day self-compassion training during the pandemic (Schnepper et al., 2020).

With daily journaling prompts and meditations, individuals learned the skills of mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. Findings reveal that participants in the intervention had significant gains in self-compassion compared to individuals in the control group who did not receive self-compassion training. Likewise, participants who learned self-compassion had decreases in perceived stress, while those who were in the control group had increases in perceived stress. Analyses demonstrated that self-compassion explained these group differences, meaning that self-compassion effectively reduced high rates of stress during the uniquely challenging context of the COVID pandemic. Notably, participants in the self-compassion intervention decreased their habit of eating in response to uncomfortable emotions, especially anxiety, compared to people in the control group. Instead of eating in attempts to soothe anxiety, participants may have relied on the wisdom of self-compassion to help them cope in ways that are more deeply nourishing and satisfying.


In all five countries, self-compassion was a consistent source of reduced stress through the early months of the pandemic. This is unsurprising given the evidence accumulated over a decade of research that demonstrates how being mindful of our struggles, remembering our shared humanity, and embodying self-kindness provides support and cultivates meaning in difficult situations. Yet, it is also heartening to see further affirmation that self-compassion is indeed exactly what we need in these times.

Self-compassion is a resource that is abundantly available in the conditions of the pandemic. We have self-compassion with us when we cannot go anywhere, and self-compassion will be within us wherever we go. All the elements of self-compassion are woven into the wholeness of our being.

With mindfulness we can keep attending to our inner experience, and remember to keep a wider perspective that includes the miracle and mystery of being human, even during our most challenging moments. 

With common humanity we can feel our inherent connection to others and remember we are not alone, even when isolation keeps us painfully distant. 

With self-kindness we can rest in the solace of our own loving presence and remember the strength of our resilience, even when our stress may feel bigger than ever. 

The simplicity and practicality of self-compassion makes it accessible to us at any moment. We do not need anything but ourselves to receive its gifts. And in a time like the COVID pandemic, this is profoundly reassuring. 

Here are 3 invitations to tap into self-compassion in this moment, however you feel. Take a moment to ask yourself any or all of these questions. You can reflect mentally or make it a journaling exercise. 

  1. What do I need?
  2. On my worst days, what helps me feel supported? How can I remember this?
  3. On my best days, what helps me feel grateful and content? How can I remember this?

For more inspiration about how to practice self-compassion, revisit this list: https://centerformsc.org/10-self-compassion-practices-for-covid-19/


References

Jiménez, Ó., Sánchez-Sánchez, L. C., & García-Montes, J. M. (2020). Psychological impact of COVID-19 confinement and its relationship with meditation. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(18), 6642. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17186642

Lau, B. H. P., Chan, C. L. W., & Ng, S. M. (2020). Self-compassion buffers the adverse mental health impacts of COVID-19-related threats: Results from a cross-sectional survey at the first peak of Hong Kong’s outbreak. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 1203. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.585270

Mohammadpour, M., Ghorbani, V., Khoramnia, S., Ahmadi, S. M., Ghvami, M., & Maleki, M. (2020). Anxiety, Self-Compassion, Gender Differences and COVID-19: Predicting Self-Care Behaviors and Fear of COVID-19 Based on Anxiety and Self-Compassion with an Emphasis on Gender Differences. Iranian Journal of Psychiatry, 15(3), 213. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7603590/

Taubman–Ben‐Ari, O., Chasson, M., & Abu‐Sharkia, S. (2020). Childbirth anxieties in the shadow of COVID‐19: Self‐compassion and social support among Jewish and Arab pregnant women in Israel. Health & Social Care in the Communityhttps://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33058395/

Schnepper, R., Reichenberger, J., & Blechert, J. (2020). Being my own companion in times of social isolation–A 14-day mobile self-compassion intervention improves stress levels and eating behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.595806/full

Marissa Knox

Teacher

Marissa C. Knox, PhD is a teacher, researcher, and writer focused on cultivating holistic and interconnected wellbeing and resilience through mindful awareness, gratitude, and self-compassion. She believes the relationship we have with ourselves is at the root of collective transformation and social change.

In her work as a trained Mindful Self-Compassion™ teacher, certified Embody Love Movement facilitator, and Level 1 iRest® Yoga Nidra teacher, Marissa supports others to embody their values, remember their wholeness, and live with integrity and in alignment with nature.

In recent projects, Marissa contributed to the adaptation of a...Read More

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