An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

The Role of Self-Compassion in Trauma-Focused Care

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Ever since psychologist Carl Rogers introduced the concept of unconditional positive regard, mental health professionals have been looking for ways to leverage the quality of the therapeutic relationship to shape outcomes. But research shows that it isn’t just the interpersonal dynamic between patient and provider that counts. The amount of compassion a person has for themselves can go a long way in determining the effectiveness of treatment.

What Is Self-Compassion?

Without proper treatment, the psychological wounds left by past trauma have the potential to negatively impact an individual’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, and sense of self. Often, young people who experience childhood trauma—either acute or ongoing, whether in the form of abuse or neglect—develop mood disorders like anxiety and/or depression later in life. And as mental healthcare providers work to help these patients recognize and break free from this suffering, they must first assist them in building the capacity to engage with clinical care. This requires an ability to stay grounded in the present, recognize dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors, and set attainable, meaningful goals for the future.

“Different from self-esteem, self-compassion reminds us that our worth isn’t based on how we compare to others. Instead, self-compassion focuses on increasing our non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of our thoughts and feelings—even the difficult or uncomfortable ones.”

Many trauma-focused providers help their patients build this foundation through practices that build self-compassion. Different from self-esteem, self-compassion reminds us that our worth isn’t based on how we compare to others. Instead, self-compassion focuses on increasing our non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of our thoughts and feelings—even the difficult or uncomfortable ones. In this way, it’s related to mindfulness practices like meditation. Self-compassion helps us to remember that we all experience suffering from time to time and encourages us to feel a greater sense of kindness toward ourselves.

How Self-Compassion Impacts Trauma-Focused Care

When a person experiences trauma, they may develop a variety of mistaken beliefs about their identity and self-worth. For example, a person whose primary caregiver was abusive or neglectful may develop a negative script that keeps them from feeling worthy of happiness, fulfillment, love, safety, and more. But in fostering greater self-compassion, individuals can reframe these beliefs and hence increase their ability to manage emotional distress.

Self-compassion helps individuals break free from the feelings of shame and self-criticism that can stand in the way of making the most of their treatment experience. The goal of enhancing self-compassion is to replace feelings of hostility or insecurity with self-soothing techniques and a more positive self-concept. A key tenet of trauma-focused care, self-compassion has been shown to be an effective treatment modality for addressing long-term emotional concerns, including:

The Benefits of Self-Compassion

Individuals who didn’t get enough comfort and soothing as children usually continue to suffer from these early experiences as they grow older. Consequently, they may exist in a hyperreactive or hypervigilant state as they mature into emerging adults. Due to their trauma history, they may perceive threats where none exist, because their brain has been trained to anticipate fear and pain.

But when a person feels more compassion for themselves, they are better able to tackle the highs and lows of the healing process and engage more deeply in treatment. In fact, research has shown that compassion has a direct impact on our ability to envision new outcomes and understand different perspectives. It has also been demonstrated to have a positive effect on mood regulation and feelings of safety. Extensive research conducted with young adults by self-compassion expert Kristin Neff shows that this emotion is directly associated with better mental health, including reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression and reduced substance use.

Know the Facts

Research has shown that compassion has a direct impact on our ability to envision new outcomes and understand different perspectives. It has also been demonstrated to have a positive effect on mood regulation and feelings of safety.

And while it might seem that too much self-compassion could erode a person’s motivation to change, the opposite is true. Research in the field of neuroscience has demonstrated that self-compassion can increase motivation to overcome challenges and make individuals happier, more resilient, and more empathic towards others. In addition, it can support the mind-body connection that has been shown to positively affect physical health.

4 Practices for Building Self-Compassion

The practice of self-compassion helps individuals replace feelings of shame and self-criticism with the ability to self-soothe and accept soothing from others. Tim Desmond, author of the book Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy, offers several tips to increase self-compassion in the treatment setting and in daily life:

  • Focus on a person or object of affection. This is a great practice for engendering feelings of compassion. Ultimately, it will be easier to transfer those positive emotions to oneself.
  • Practice combatting reactivity by simply noticing when feelings of suffering come up. Doing so can lay the groundwork for accepting these feelings without the sense of self-judgment and shame that trauma survivors often experience.
  • Often, feelings of suffering are grounded in memories from the past. When this occurs, use compassion and positive emotions to reframe those memories. Neuroscientists believe that memories can be “reconsolidated”—in other words, we can use purposefully shift the emotional associations related to memories of trauma.
  • Celebrate all of who you are. An individual who is suffering from symptoms of a mental health condition related to trauma may label some of their thoughts or behaviors as dysfunctional or pathological. But it’s important to remember that true self-compassion involves honoring each part of ourselves without shame.

Evidence-Based, Compassion-Driven Care

At Newport Institute, we provide evidence-based care in an atmosphere of unconditional love. We treat young adults using scientifically validated modalities, in an environment of unwavering compassion. Our treatment professionals use a variety of interventions to support the development of enhanced self-compassion, while also incorporating compassion into the therapeutic relationship itself.

No matter the mental health or substance abuse challenge a young person is struggling with, our team is here to support them and their family with a blend of clinical expertise and compassionate care.

Sources

J Res Pers. 2007;41: 139–154.

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004 Sep 29; 359(1449): 1367–1378.

Pers Soc Psych Bull. 2012 May;38(9): 1133–1143 

Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2015; 6: 10.3402.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Photo by Min An from Pexels

Treatment / August 10, 2020

Newport Institute

Sign up for the latest in mental health
and young adult treatment.

Receive a free meditation video
when you subscribe to our newsletter!

We will never share your email address.
100% privacy guaranteed. Learn more.

Meditation