Health concerns like diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety are on the rise. Now research shows us that there may be a “vaccine" that can help protect us from these illnesses. Not the injectable kind, but a toolkit of skills that can help protect us from these lifestyles diseases, and help us cope better if we have them.

The toolkit? What researchers call positive mental health. 

The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community". And research shows that positive mental health acts as a resource of resilience that allows our bodies and minds to bounce back in the face of challenges and adversity experienced, helping us ward off both physical and mental illnesses. A paper published in June in the journal Cognitive Therapy And Research, titled Why Does Positive Mental Health Buffer Against Psychopathology? An Exploratory Study On Self-Compassion As A Resilience Mechanism And Adaptive Emotion Regulation Strategy, cites four studies which show that positive mental health is associated with a lower risk of mental illness as well as cardiovascular disease.

Self-compassion is a quintessential component of positive mental health and is defined as being touched by one’s own suffering, and treating oneself with understanding and concern. Self-compassion has its origin in Buddhist philosophy and includes three skills.

The first skill is the ability to be kind to oneself instead of being critical in the face of disappointment or failure. The second is the ability to remember that we are part of an interconnected whole, and that all human beings experience both joy and sorrow, success and failure. In other words, the second skill is an incorporated knowledge and acceptance that everyone’s life experience has suffering and challenge. The third skill is one of mindfulness, an awareness of what is happening to oneself both externally and internally.

Kristin Neff from the University of Texas, US, did a study to determine if these three skills could be taught. It turned out they could, and were remembered over a one-year period among study participants. The study was published in the Journal Of Clinical Psychology in January 2013.

In the study, Neff cites evidence for self-compassion being associated with positive psychological strengths such as happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity and exploration, personal initiative and emotional intelligence. “Another strength of being self-compassionate is the ability to cope effectively with life stressors such as academic failure, divorce, child maltreatment, or chronic pain. Self-compassionate individuals have been found to have improved relationship functioning and also report more empathetic concern, altruism, perspective taking, and forgiveness. 

“Self-compassion also promotes health-related behaviours such as sticking to one’s diet, reducing smoking, seeking medical treatment when needed, and exercising," she writes. All this is encouraging because people, particularly those prone to self-criticism, believe that one needs to be self-critical to make a change in one’s life. So learning to be kinder to oneself, treating oneself like one would a best friend, is the first skill of self-compassion and a big step towards a more resilient self.

The second skill is a cultivated sense of awareness that need not be taught so much as understood while the third skill can be self-taught by learning one of various types of meditations. Bengaluru-based psychotherapist Kalyani Kapoor says: “Self-awareness and self-acceptance are at the heart of mental health. Without self-compassion, these are almost impossible." In other words, positive mental health requires self-compassion.

I find that the practice of self-compassion does make one more forgiving of one’s shortcomings and interestingly, less likely to procrastinate as a consequence.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, is a wellness expert and a certified life coach. She has formerly worked as a clinical scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

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