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There is growing evidence linking self-compassion with better physical health, but what does self-compassion actually mean?
To be self-compassionate involves a number of things:
- Being kind to yourself
- Not judging yourself on the basis of your perceived failures or flaws
- Accepting that no one is perfect a�� we all have flaws, make mistakes and experience failure
- Recognising that stressful events are part of the human experience
- Being mindful about negative feelings that can arise following failure or stress, but maintaining a balanced approach about those feelings
Mentally punishing yourself for your perceived failures, wona��t shame you into better behaviour, ita��s more likely to make it worse.
People who are attempting to cope with stress are more likely to turn to behaviours that offer short-term relief, or a quick fix, such as smoking, drinking alcohol or indulging in high-calorie, processed foods.
At the same time, they are less likely to look after themselves, through exercise or even medical care.
Emotional eating can lead to negative thoughts, with self-criticism causing further negative emotions and anxiety and the stress cycle of eating to self-soothe continues.
A study published in Health Psychology Open in 2017, surveyed 176 individuals to test a serial mediation model that linked self-compassion, perceived stress and health behaviours, with a comprehensive index of physical health.
The research suggests being kinder to yourself and accepting your perceived flaws and failures, will help to reduce stress and promote good health.
The positive effects of self-compassion.
- Self-compassion is linked to lower stress levels – Self compassionate people respond to failures and setbacks with acceptance rather than judgement. They recognise their mistakes as normal, i.e. everybody does it. They dona��t let negative emotions consume them.
- Self-compassion is linked to positive behaviours a�� If youa��re self-compassionate, youa��re more likely to eat healthier, exercise and stick to a diet, as well as being more likely to quit smoking.
- Self-compassion is about putting things into perspective.
So, you had a piece of that birthday cake someone brought into the office. You worked late and ended up going straight home rather than to the gym. Instead of beating yourself up about it, show a little kindness to yourself for once.
- Tell yourself, ita��s not the end of the world – Tomorrow is a new day.
- Dona��t make unrealistic expectations of yourself a�� If you set yourself the goal of going to the gym every day, your chances of failing will be much higher.
- Learn to forgive yourself a�� Dona��t let failure define you.
- Encourage yourself with positive thoughts a�� Tell yourself how good you will feel if you go out for that run, or choose the healthy option at lunch.
Motivate yourself to do the right thing because you want to, not because you feel you have to. Your goals, no matter what they are, will ultimately involve attaining happiness and to achieve this, you need to be kind to yourself along the way.
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Mental imagery, which mentally mimics perceptual, motor and emotional experiences, is thought to enhance goal achievement. In addition, implementation intentions, which work on the basis of a�?If I encounter situation X, then I will perform behaviour Ya�?, are assumed to do the same.
Despite the best intentions, people often fail to achieve a set goal.
Simply having an action plan only concentrates on the end result, rather than how to get there.
Implementation intentions (a�?if-thena�? ideas), however, clearly set out how a person should behave if they encounter a particular situation during the course of the implementation of a plan.
At the same time, mental imagery acts as a rehearsal, whereby the person performs in his or her mind what will actually happen, before implementing the plan and its solution.
Could combining implementation intentions with mental imagery facilitate optimum goal achievement?
In order to evaluate the role of implementation intentions alongside mental imagery, a research team at the University of Montreal carried out an investigation amongst 177 students. Each student provided details of their fruit intake over the last seven days before being split into four groups.
- The first group did nothing to increase their fruit intake (control condition).
- The second group used the a�?ifa��thena�? plan for achieving maximum fruit consumption (implementation intention).
- The third group performed mental imagery techniques to increase their fruit consumption.
- The fourth group carried out both a�?ifa��thena�? plans as well as practicing mental imagery of these same plans.
It was necessary to combine implementation intention and mental imagery in order to achieve set goals.
At the end of the test period, the research team looked again at fruit consumption and found each student consumed approximately 2.64 portions of fruit per day. (One portion of fruit is equal to one apple, one banana, one glass of juice or a half cup of grapes).
Participants in the fourth group consumed the highest quantity of fruit.
The participants in the first group (the control) ate less fruit than the participants in both the second and third groups.
Whilst implementation intentions have been found to be more effective than relying on self-motivation and will power, imaging an action is equivalent to carrying it out, as this activates the same areas of the brain. Together, these work as a powerful tool to achieve set goals.
So, the upshot of this is, if you want to set a goal to eat healthier, for example, by eating more fruit, picture every step of the process. This involves mentally picturing the piece of fruit, reaching for it, smelling it, biting into and chewing.
This way you are more likely to be successful at achieving your goal.
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Using visualisation techniques to help you get fit.
Many people would love to get fit without having to do anything and the idea of being able to improve your strength merely by thinking about it sounds too good to be true doesna��t it?
According to research by Professor Brian Clark at the University of Ohio, just thinking about exercise whilst sitting still may make us stronger. Clark and his team recruited volunteers to wear surgical casts from elbow to wrists for four weeks.
During this time, half the volunteers were asked to perform visualisation exercises, whereby they imagined themselves flexing their wrist muscles. They did this for 11 minutes a day for five days a week throughout the test period, whilst the other group did nothing.
On removal of the casts, the volunteers who had carried out the visualisation exercises were found to have wrist muscles that were twice as strong as those who had done nothing at all.
Stronger neuromuscular pathways lead to stronger muscles.
As part of their research, Clark and his colleagues examined brain-muscle pathways by placing a magnetic field above the motor cortex to stimulate the neurons in the brain.
Application of a magnetic field, caused the muscles of the volunteers to flex and then become momentarily paralysed. By measuring the amount of muscle contraction and the duration of paralysis, the researchers were able to make inferences about the connections in the brain. The longer the paralysis lasted, the weaker the neuromuscular connection.
Not surprisingly, the volunteers who performed visualisation exercises had stronger neuromuscular pathways and hence, stronger muscles.
An active mind equals a healthy body.
This is not a new concept. Our brains evolved together, therefore it makes sense there should be a strong connection between them.
This doesna��t mean the mind alone can keep the muscles strong though, but this research suggests visualisation techniques such as these could play an important role in recovery. For example, it could aid or reduce the effects of muscle weakness following a prolonged period of immobilisation.
Skeletal muscle is the most important factor in controlling strength. However, the nervous system also plays an important role and scientists are just beginning to understand the extent of this.
As research in this area continues, ita��s possible visualisation or imagery techniques could be used to help people undergoing neurorehabilitation or even to help control the effects of aging.
In a press statement, Clark described the muscles as puppets of the nervous system moved by the brain that acts as the string.
a�?Visualisation enhances neural pathways in your brain so ita��s easier for your nervous system to activate those muscles in real life,a�? Clark said.
a�?This information may fundamentally change how we think about muscle weakness in the elderly.a�?
The research team wrote,
“These findings suggest neurological mechanisms, most likely at the cortical level, contribute significantly to disuse-induced weakness, and that regular activation of the cortical regions via imagery attenuates weakness and VA by maintaining normal levels of inhibition.a�?
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