Does Self-Compassion affect Stress? Testing a Decreased Vulnerability Hypothesis
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AbstractSelf-compassion is a trait newly developed by Neff (2003a, 2003b, 2004) that is comprised of self-kindness, perceptions of common humanity, and mindfulness, which uniquely captures affective tranquility and the ability to treat the self with warmth and patience. Utilizing the transactional model of stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984), I propose a decreased vulnerability hypothesis that holds that self-compassion limits vulnerability to stress by increasing use of approach-oriented coping, decreasing use of avoidance-oriented coping, and fostering challenge appraisals of greater magnitude and threat appraisals of lower magnitude. Two studies used a daily diary methodology to examine the decreased vulnerability hypothesis and followed undergraduate students as they reported how they cognitively appraised and coped with everyday stressors. Although little support was found for the decreased vulnerability hypothesis, selfcompassion may buffer the effects of stress on positive affect and be associated with increased confidence in one’s ability to address stressors. These potential effects suggest a number of future research directions and have important implications for coping with chronic illness and limiting the impact of stress on well-being. Two college students in a public speaking class, Michael and Nora, are planning for their midterm: delivering a thirty minute speech to be graded by the professor and their classmates. Michael is terrified; in the weeks leading up to the speech, he is overcome with stress. To escape what he has come to see as a looming disaster, he turns to heavy drinking and tries to convince himself that he doesn’t care about the class. On the other hand, Nora faces the speech with equanimity. She starts preparing early and quickly comes to find out that it isn’t so bad. “I can do this,” she tells herself. “Besides, everybody else is probably stressed about this, too.” Why do these two students face the same situation in profoundly different ways, framing the speech and coping with the stress it brings about so differently? I propose that self-compassion, a newly identified trait, may engender decreased vulnerability to stress. Neff (2003a, 2003b, 2004) developed self-compassion to uniquely capture a positive and benevolent attitude toward the self and a sense of affective tranquility. Indeed, research in this nascent area has shown it to be associated with a broad pattern of adaptive and healthy functioning as well as a buffering effect where reactions to negative self-relevant events are softened. I propose that self-compassion may serve to decrease vulnerability to stress through two mechanisms. First, because self-compassionate people’s positive self-feelings emanate from within, many situations may not pose a threat to the self and are, as a result, not as stressful. Second, self-compassionate people, by virtue of a sense of affective tranquility and exercising patience toward themselves, may engage in more adaptive coping strategies that limit distress and enable a stressor to be addressed more efficiently and effectively. In the present paper, I outline the nascent concept of self-compassion, noting parallel lines of research that establish the legitimacy and utility of its components and unique functionality. Next, I describe the trait and affective correlates of self-compassion as well as an emerging negative reaction buffering function. Then, I present the transactional model of stress, which is the dominant paradigm for conceptualizing and studying stress. Following this, drawing on the transaction model of stress and selfcompassion theory and research, I outline a proposed decreased vulnerability hypothesis and present two potential mechanisms through which it functions.