Self Compassion is Good Medicine for Your Gut and Mind!

Self Compassion is Good Medicine for Your Gut and Mind!

“Digestive issues can really impact our quality of life, social interactions, and our feelings towards ourselves and our bodies.”

Digestive issues can really impact our quality of life, social interactions, and our feelings towards ourselves and our bodies. It’s not uncommon for frustration to arise when we have digestive symptoms, especially when it impacts our social plans, family duties, work or causes pain and discomfort.

Over time our frustration and disappointment can build up. Perhaps you’ve noticed the common experience of a negative inner dialog that can be harsh or critical towards yourself or your body. We may even get grouchy towards those around us, and say angry or negative things we later regret. What is this inner voice and how can we tame it?

I introduced a technique in the mindful eating post in April, known as RAIN, by Tara Brach. It can help bring you into the present and stop negative thought streams or behaviors on the spot. RAIN works well to help us see when self-compassion may be needed.

“Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time…”

Dr. Kristin Neff, is the leader in the field of self-compassion, and this is how she describes it. “Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a stiff upper lip mentality, you stop and tell yourself this is really difficult right now, how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”

Dr. Chris Germer, another leader in the field adds, “Self-compassion is conceptualized as containing 3 core components: self-kindness versus self- judgment, common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus overidentification, when relating to painful experiences.”

“The practice of self-compassion can bring us more ease and comfort in ourselves, as well as help us be our best self on a daily basis.”

Neff and Germer teach people and train professionals in the field how to apply self-compassion practices to themselves and others to improve mental and physical health. The practice of self-compassion can bring us more ease and comfort in ourselves, as well as help us be our best self on a daily basis. Self-compassion supports improved relationships with those who are important to us.

UCLA’s Integrative Digestive Health and Wellness Program notes, “The research shows that greater self-compassion is associated with less stress, anxiety and depression, and more increased life satisfaction, intrinsic motivation and well-being.” It can be a key part of the treatment plan for those with digestive health and/or mental health challenges.

How do you know if you have self-compassion, and if there is room to improve? Take the self-compassion test to see where you are on the scale. Even the experts in the field say they have room for improvement in their daily self-compassion.

“Most of us show more compassion for our loved ones than we do for ourselves.”

I find practicing self-compassion is one of the most effective tools to teach people who face all types of challenges, whether it relates to the past or their current life situation. Most of us show more compassion for our loved ones than we do for ourselves. I remind people that it’s like the safety instruction before takeoff on an airplane. If there is a loss of cabin pressure, put your own mask on before assisting others. We need to keep ourselves at the top of the list for receiving compassion, especially in difficult times. We need to be kind and care to ourselves first, or we may have very little to offer others.

What is the research on self-compassion and the impact on people with digestive disease? Let’s take a look at a few studies in those with IBS, Crohn’s, UC and Celiac.

“…compassion-based interventions may be particularly beneficial for improving well-being in people with IBD.”

Research shows mindfulness practices can increase self-compassion and have been found to be an important part of helping gut issues like IBS. In a longitudinal study of individuals with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis they found evidence of, “the high comorbidity of depression and anxiety and frequent self-report of illness shame and self-criticism in this population…” the researchers concluded that, “compassion-based interventions may be particularly beneficial for improving well-being in people with IBD.” In a study of adults with celiac disease researchers found, “Self-compassion directly and indirectly predicts dietary adherence and quality of life among adults with celiac disease.”

“…negative thought patterns create more stress which worsens not only mood, but digestive function”.

Learning to watch and listen to our own inner dialog can be challenging, yet it is a very important step to improving our wellbeing. Have you noticed thoughts towards yourself that you would never say out loud to someone close to you like a good friend? What are we telling ourselves? Is our self-talk kind and supportive comments that encourages us to make good choices throughout the day? Is it filled with comparisons to others where we don’t measure up? Are we stuck in negative past events or caught in anxiety about the future? These are all very common patterns of thoughts for many people. However, these negative thought patterns create more stress which worsens not only mood, but digestive function.

“The foundation of all mindfulness, including self-compassion practices, is to be in the present moment without resisting what is here in our body, mind and environment”

The good news is we can shift this negative inner dialog to improve our mood, lower anxiety, and benefit our overall physical and mental health. Are you ready to try practicing self-compassion? Investing even a few minutes each day to practice can lead to big changes in how you feel about yourself on a daily basis. It also makes us more aware of thoughts that are not helpful to us, and thus helps us make a change.

The foundation of all mindfulness, including self-compassion practices, is to be in the present moment without resisting what is here in our body, mind and environment. From here we can start to shift our inner dialog and feelings about what is happening to more nurturing, kind words.

If you catch a negative thought about yourself or your situation, you can even start with a simple phrase like, “may I be free from suffering.” We aren’t trying to push away the experience, but just planting a wish that we have less suffering. This helps bring awareness to the present, and from here you can begin to move to self-compassion. It is also helpful if you’re in an argument with someone else, you can pause briefly and think the thought, “may we be free from suffering,” before you speak. It may help you to make a choice to disengage from making matters worse with words that hurt you and/or the other person.

What does self-compassion sound like? Germer and Neff give this example, “…we soothe and nurture ourselves when confronting our pain rather than getting angry when life falls short of our ideals. The inner conversation is gentle and encouraging rather than harsh and belittling. We clearly acknowledge our problems and shortcomings, but do so without judgment, so we can do what’s necessary to help ourselves.”

There are many ways to learn self-compassion practices. One site with excellent tools, information, and practice tips is Dr. Neff’s self-compassion website. There are books, audios, and training programs available for practice and learning.

If you prefer close your eyes, focus inward and listen, there are many free guided practices you can try on her website. This is a wonderful way to nurture yourself, and relax as you increase your level of self-compassion and reap the benefits of your practice on body and mind.

“…how we talk to ourselves really influences how we feel inside and outside, as well as how we respond to those around us.”

In summary, how we talk to ourselves really influences how we feel inside and outside, as well as how we respond to those around us. Active engagement in self-compassion practice helps us lower depression, anxiety, anger towards ourselves and others, and improve our physical and emotional health. May you find more compassion for yourself, and enhance your physical and emotional wellbeing!


Kerry Wangen, MD, PhD is a psychiatrist who focuses on the mind-body connections for optimal mental health. She is board certified in psychiatry and has a telehealth practice serving people in California. She has been practicing meditation since her teens.