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Self-compassion is good for heart health

Look in the mirror and smile, as new research has found that being kind to yourself might just help save your life.  

February is Heart Awareness Month and the Heart Foundation’s Big Heart Day, making it the perfect time to focus on heart-smart activities and heart-friendly thinking. 

A recent study has found women, in their forties and up, who practice self-compassion may be less likely to develop the early stages of cardiovascular disease, even if they have other risk factors, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

We’ve long been aware of the toll stress takes on our bodies and the role it plays in the development of cardiovascular disease. The prolonged pandemic has only served to amplify our daily stressors, especially for women.

So stop, breathe and pop on the kettle. It’s time to be kind to yourself. Taking time to look after your own mental wellbeing can have lasting physical benefits.
According to the study’s author, Professor Rebecca Thurston, most research to date has focused on negative factors that influence cardiovascular health.

“The impact of positive psychological factors, such as self-compassion, is far less known,” said Professor Thurston, Professor of Psychiatry, Clinical and Translational Science, Epidemiology, and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.


The findings

During the study, Professor Thurston and her team of researchers asked 200 women, aged between 45 and 67, to rate how often they experienced feelings of inadequacy, whether they often felt disappointed by their self-perceived flaws, or if they granted themselves caring and tenderness during difficult life moments. An ultrasound was also taken of the participants’ carotid arteries, the major vessels in the neck that carry the blood from the heart to the brain.

The researchers found women who were kinder to themselves had thinner carotid artery walls and less plaque build-up than those with lower self-compassion. Thinner artery walls and less plaque are linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and strokes.

The results were consistent even when the researchers factored in other lifestyle factors that can increase the risk of heart disease, such as lack of physical activity, smoking and depressive symptoms.

“These findings underscore the importance of practicing kindness and compassion, particularly towards yourself,” said Professor Thurston.

“We are all living through extraordinarily stressful times, and our research suggests that self-compassion is essential for both our mental and physical health.”


Practicing self-compassion 

Self-compassion can take many forms, for some it may involve devoting some time to daily mindfulness activities, and for others it might be curling up in a quiet place with a good book or going for a walk.

Whatever form your self-compassion takes be sure that it provides you with a place from which you can engage in some positive self-talk – be your own best friend!

So, take some ‘me time’, be kind to yourself, and take a peek at these 4 extra tips for a healthier heart:
  1. Eat a heart friendly diet – the Heart Foundation recommends plenty of vegetables, fruit and wholegrains, a variety of healthy protein-rich foods, healthy fats and oils – a diet similar to the Mediterranean Diet.
  2. Get active – aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity over a week (that’s just a little more than 20 minutes a day). 
  3. Quit smoking – smoking greatly increases the risk of developing heart disease.  
  4. Know your risk – all women should know the risk factors for heart disease including blood pressure, menopause, migraines and complicated pregnancy.  
The New Zealand Heart Foundation is a mine of information about heart health and healthy living. For more information on lifestyle and nutrition tips for a healthy heart you can download our free nutrition fact sheet or visit our Cholesterol Resource Centre.