National Stress Awareness Month: The importance of being kind to yourself
27 April, 2021
Author: Pick Everard
New research from the Mental Health Foundation states that 74% of UK adults in the past year have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of stress. In support of Stress Awareness Month, Pick Everard Learning & Development Advisor, Tasmin Chamberlain, discusses the importance of showing compassion and kindness to ourselves, not just to others.
Kindness is one of life’s most valuable components and most people readily agree that kindness adds quality to life. Whenever we are on the receiving end of kindness, we feel better. Overall we appreciate, value and welcome it in our lives.
One of the key messages that I remember my parents teaching me when I was young was, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. This message was also echoed through various childhood films and at school. It is a simple statement to remember, and that kindness shadows the respect we show to others. Whilst this now naturally occurs after being embedded into our mindsets, we sometimes get caught up in being kind to others, that we forget the importance of being kind to ourselves as well.
While we see the value of kindness towards others, and appreciate kindness towards us by others, we often overlook the place of self-kindness and have a tendency to dismiss the value and healing quality of kindness directed toward ourselves. On average, kind people have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average population, Integrative Psychological and Behavioural Science, 1998. Novelist Jack Kornfield said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is not complete,” effectively saying, that it is not enough to be kind to others or to just accept kindness from others, but we must also be mindful to express kindness to ourselves.
We can all be hard on ourselves at times, criticising everything from how we may look at a certain time, for not applying for a new role to how we presented to a client. Unfortunately, these sometimes daily internal comments that we say to ourselves, come with consequences. “Harsh self-criticism activates the sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight, and elevates stress hormones such as cortisol in our bloodstream,” Emma Seppala, PhD, science director the Stanford University Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. Too much cortisol can lead to various health problems including cardiovascular trouble. Unsurprisingly, being hard on ourselves can lead us down the path toward mental health issues as well, like anxiety and depression. With self-compassion, you remember that we all make mistakes, experiences failures, and that these struggles are part of being human. Remembering this helps to bring us back from a feeling of isolation. That feeling of isolation in a lot of people, is the main reason for depression. Self-compassion and showing ourselves kindness, helps to protect us against depression, by helping us feel more connected and enabling us to cope.
It is vital that we all understand that self-compassion is not a ‘poor me’ feeling of self-pity, it is the recognition that sometimes life is very difficult, and your feelings are as just as valid as anyone else. Learning how to develop showing kindness to yourself may sound straight forward, however as this is not something that may have been instilled in us from a young age, it can be harder to understand how showing that kindness to yourself, looks like to you. Part of this is to learn how to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and disappointments, and shifting our mindsets to embrace our flaws and weakness is a great starting point. This allows us all to begin a journey of acceptance and growth and provides us with the power to be kind to ourselves as well as promoting happiness and confidence.
Applying techniques such as self-reflection, positive affirmations, self-care practices, appreciating simple joys, and journal prompts to our daily life that can work to remind us to be kind to ourselves. Consistent practices can have a huge impact over time as long as we all stay dedicated to the process. Some studies have found that using the techniques that help you to show kindness to yourself, can reverse the negative trend of criticism and cortisol. Research is growing on the link between mind and body health and a review of studies over 30 years, found that stress does have an impact on the immune system. Linking back to the flight or fight mode, our other systems slow down temporarily to give the body a chance to deal with the threat, but with chronic stress, they stay slowed down. You can counteract this dynamic by being kinder to yourself.
There is not one right way to take care of and be kind to yourself. When times are tough, what works for you might be different to what works for someone else. And what works for you today might be different from what helped a month ago, or what will help in a few months’ time. Nothing stays the same and part of being kind to yourself is to be flexible.
Whatever it is that you get comfort and enjoyment out of, make yourself do it. Do something that gives you pleasure and comfort each day. By doing the things that you enjoy will help you move through sadness and difficulties, even if you do not initially feel like doing them. Remember that how you treat yourself sets the overall tone for how others will treat you.