Nicholas Hobson, PhD – Brain Blogger http://brainblogger.com Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.6 How Self-Compassion Can Fight Perfectionism http://brainblogger.com/2018/05/30/how-self-compassion-can-fight-perfectionism/ http://brainblogger.com/2018/05/30/how-self-compassion-can-fight-perfectionism/#comments Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=23700 “Be kind to one another.”

You don’t need to be a die-hard Ellen DeGeneres fan to appreciate the value of that motto. And while we’re reminded how kindness goes a long way in our everyday interactions with others, we often forget to apply it to those who need it most: ourselves.

Whether it’s setting a personal weight-loss goal, or believing that we can ace a final exam—all of us are familiar with the experience of setting high standards. We’re even more familiar with the inevitable let-down that comes from not living up to those very standards.

Enter, the life of a perfectionist.

But, importantly, not all perfectionists operate the same. There are different types that are associated with different psychological outcomes.

On the one hand, if you strive to attain your ambitious goals and prevent yourself from being overly self-critical, you might be a personal strivings perfectionist. This isn’t so bad. In fact, this type of perfectionism is more likely to lead to relatively higher levels of self-esteem and decreased levels of negative affect.

On the other hand, if you constantly believe that you are not good enough, if you judge yourself by your shortcomings, and if you are constantly worried that other people won’t approve of you, then you might be more on the side of maladaptive perfectionism. This form of perfectionism has been linked to depressive symptoms in both adolescents and adults.

It’s no wonder then that researchers are curious to know more about interventions that help buffer against this maladaptive perfectionism. In one recent study, researchers examined the possibility that self-compassion can protect us against the negative effects of maladaptive perfectionism. The questions is, can self-directed kindness increase our chances of living a full, healthy life? Can it combat the symptoms of depression that come from this less ideal version of perfectionism?

Understanding self-compassion

You may ask, “What exactly is self-compassion? And is it something that can be cultivated by anyone, or is a skill that is only available to some of us?” To shed some light on these questions, researchers have broken down self-compassion into three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

While the first component is self-explanatory, the other two require careful consideration. When something terrible happens to us, often the initial reaction is to sit and wallow in our grief and self-pity. We convince ourselves that no one else is going through similar problems in their lives. But that is simply not true. Statistically speaking, it’s an erroneous judgment.

In order to be more accepting of ourselves, we need to realize that we are never as alone and isolated as we think we are. This is at the heart of common humanity.

At the same time, many of us are prone to over-analyzing painful experiences, or trying to avoid negative feelings altogether. Mindfulness then, is about acknowledging our thoughts, feelings, and emotions without judgement, and accepting them as part of the common human experience.

Back to our study. Taking into account these three sub-components, the researchers in the present investigation set out to predict that self-compassion would weaken the relationship between perfectionism and depression in both adolescent and adult populations.

The study

541 adolescents from grades 7 to 10 were recruited for the first study. Participants were asked to complete three online questionnaires during school hours, as part of a larger well-being intervention study. The questionnaires tapped into perfectionism, mood/feelings, self-worth and self-esteem, as well as reported self-compassion.

As predicted, self-compassion was found to moderate, or weaken, the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression in this sample of adolescents. Next, the researchers wanted to see if the results would hold for adults.

515 adults from the general population were recruited through online advertisements. Again, participants were asked to complete the same questionnaires. Once again in line with the researchers’ predictions, self-compassion was found to weaken the relationship between perfectionism and depression in the adult sample. What was true for teens was also true for adults later on in life.

Why it matters

It seems that more than anything, today’s culture values perfection. Parents and teachers may push us towards excellence at school, our friends may judge us by how we dress and act in their company, and perhaps worst of all, our social media accounts constantly fool us into thinking that there are people out there who actually have perfect lives.

Good news, bad news. The bad news is that we can’t completely eradicate perfectionistic thoughts. Good news is that we can try to change our relationship to those thoughts through self-compassion. If we learn to cultivate self-kindness, connection, and mindfulness as we strive toward achieving our goals, any setback we face along the way will be met with greater resilience and mental strength. As a result, we are less likely to fall victim to the debilitating effects of depression, and more likely to live a happy, balanced life.

So, as Ellen DeGeneres reminds us, always be kind to others. But before you do, be sure to look after yourself first. In this case, it’s okay to be a little selfish.

References

Ferrari, M., Yap, K., Scott, N., Einstein, D., & Ciarrochi, J. (2018). Self-compassion moderates the perfectionism and depression link in both adolescence and adulthood. PLOS ONE, 13(2), e0192022. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0192022

Hill, R., Huelsman, T., & Araujo, G. (2010). Perfectionistic concerns suppress associations between perfectionistic strivings and positive life outcomes. Personality And Individual Differences, 48(5), 584-589. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.12.011

NEFF, K. (2003). The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion. Self And Identity, 2(3), 223-250. doi: 10.1080/15298860309027

Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive Conceptions of Perfectionism: Approaches, Evidence, Challenges. Personality And Social Psychology Review, 10(4), 295-319. doi: 10.1207/s15327957pspr1004_2

Image via nandhukumar/Pixabay.

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How Misreading Bodily Signals Causes Anxiety http://brainblogger.com/2018/05/25/how-misreading-bodily-signals-causes-anxiety/ http://brainblogger.com/2018/05/25/how-misreading-bodily-signals-causes-anxiety/#respond Fri, 25 May 2018 13:00:05 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=23748 It’s 9 AM Monday morning. You’ve just pulled into work and are ready to pitch your presentation to the senior management team. Your PowerPoint slides are damn near perfect and you’ve gone over the script dozens of times. You’ve got this.

As everyone gathers in the room, you’re suddenly flooded with a hit of adrenaline. The bad kind. In a flash you become acutely aware of what your body is doing: beads of sweat forming on your brow, a dry mouth that no amount of water can fix, and a steadily increasing heart rate thumping inside your chest.

This ability to perceive the signals of your body is known as interoceptive accuracy (IAc). There are, as the example demonstrated, different psychosomatic cues that you pick up within yourself during states of anxiety. But above all, a beating heart is the hardest one to ignore.

It’s for this reason that heartbeat perception, as brain scientists call it, is a direct proxy for measuring people’s IAc and reported anxiety and stress levels.

IAc and a beating heart

Having the ability to accurately detect your own heartbeat is critical for reappraising your anxiety on a moment to moment basis. We know that anxiety is as much in the body as it is in the mind, and that a (mis)perception of a fast heart rate can easily contribute to the catastrophization of a panicked state.

It’s why some of the most effective anxiety-related therapies, like progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing, tend to focus on muting a physiological response followed by a cognitive reappraisal technique.

Now in terms of IAc, the longstanding view was that it is an inherited trait, similar to eye color or height. Your IAc is immutable, unchanging. But now there’s new evidence suggesting that the situation matters just as much as the person: While some people may have inherently bad interoceptive ability, we can’t ignore the influence of the broader context. And this, if it turns out to be true, is a definite win for anyone looking to reverse a certain anxiety-based predisposition.

The study and findings

A team of researchers led by Martin F. Whittkamp out of the University of Luxembourg  set out to investigate just how much of a role the environment plays in determining our ability to self-reflect on accurate biofeedback.

The researchers relied on two methods to measure IAc via heartbeat perception. The first, called the counting task is simply a comparison between actual measures of your heartbeat with your self-reported measures. Another method, called the heartbeat discrimination task, measures how accurately you can rate whether or not your heartbeat is in sync with an external stimulus such as a blinking light on a computer screen.

The team in this newest study compared the results of both a heartbeat counting task and discrimination task in two conditions: a resting state and a stress state. Mental stress was induced by having participants match the color of a flashing light bulb with a corresponding button as fast and accurately as possible. If this wasn’t stressful enough, the experimenter also chimed in with a few verbal cues urging the participant to perform better so as to not ruin the entire experiment.

In addition to comparing stress state IAc with resting state IAc, the researchers also designed a number of computational models. These models aimed to measure how much of one’s interoceptive accuracy is owed to individual ability versus the situation.

The results found that about 40% of a person’s IAc can be explained by his/her individual traits, while around 30% can be explained by the changing situation, leaving the remaining 30% to measurement error.

What this says is that your ability to detect and therefore modulate your bodily responses during an anxious state is not fixed. These signals are amenable to change. You can learn to more accurately perceive your beating heart in a high-stress environment. You can apply reappraisal techniques in mitigating your anxiety.

The findings of this study have the potential to inform research on stress and anxiety management. For example, having a general idea of how much your IAc is dependent on biological predisposition could provide leeway to pharmaceutical interventions to help combat debilitating responses to stressful situations.

For now there’s therapeutic power in knowing you can improve your IAc and work towards minimizing your anxiety.

References

Feldman, G., Greeson, J., & Senville, J. (2010). Differential effects of mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and loving-kindness meditation on decentering and negative reactions to repetitive thoughts. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 48(10), 1002-1011. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2010.06.006

Knoll, J., & Hodapp, V. (1992). A Comparison between Two Methods for Assessing Heartbeat Perception. Psychophysiology, 29(2), 218-222. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1992.tb01689.x

Richter, D., Manzke, T., Wilken, B., & Ponimaskin, E. (2003). Serotonin receptors: guardians of stable breathing. Trends In Molecular Medicine, 9(12), 542-548. doi: 10.1016/j.molmed.2003.10.010

Wittkamp, M., Bertsch, K., Vögele, C., & Schulz, A. (2018). A latent state-trait analysis of interoceptive accuracy. Psychophysiology, 55(6), e13055. doi: 10.1111/psyp.13055

Image via mohamed_hassan/Pixabay.

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