Every month, we scour the scientific literature for interesting studies that have practical implications for therapists working with shame, self-criticism, or compassion. Below are a few of our favorites for this month:
Prosocial behavior mitigates the relationship between stress and health and mood difficulties
When you think of a typical stress response, what is the first thing that comes to mind? We’re guessing the first thing you thought of is probably not holding open a door for someone, or asking someone if they need help. Although psychological research on stress tends to focus on the fight-or-flight response, or sometimes the fight-flight-freeze response, this study suggests that it might be helpful to give more attention to the tend-and-befriend response to stress. The authors of this study used a daily diary approach to study whether prosocial behaviors occurring following stressful experiences mitigate the effects of these day-to-day stressors on health and mood. The authors found that when people increased their prosocial behaviors relative to their average behaviors, the negative effects of stress were mitigated. Possible reasons for the mitigation include distraction from one’s own concerns, parasympathetic upregulation from engaging compassion, and increase in oxytocin.
Take away: Part of why distress (and shame in particular) is problematic is that it tends to focus us on ourselves and reducing our own pain. This study suggests that a more helpful response to distress may sometimes be to focus outward on kindness toward others. Do you think that it might be helpful for some of your clients to help them focus on how to be more prosocial when feeling distressed?
Raposa, E. B., Laws, H. B., & Ansell, E. B. (2015). Prosocial Behavior Mitigates the Negative Effects of Stress in Everyday Life. Clinical Psychological Science, 2167702615611073.
Turning regret into personal improvement with self-compassion
This series of three studies suggests that regret is more likely to lead to growth when experienced through a lens of self-compassion. In the first study, postings about regret on a blog that were rated as expressing more self-improvement, were the postings in which the regret experiences were described with more self-compassion. In study 2, people with higher trait self-compassion reported experiencing more self-improvement when recalling regret experiences. In study 3, a self-compassion induction led to increased acceptance, forgiveness, and self-improvement in the context of recalling a past regret experience.
Take away: Client disclosures of regret may be opportunities for clients to connect with their values and motivation if we can help them approach them in a compassionate manner. This is also a good reminder to be compassionate for yourself when you consider things you regret in your work with clients.
Zhang, J. W., & Chen, S. (2016). Self-Compassion Promotes Personal Improvement From Regret Experiences via Acceptance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(2), 244-258.
In the general population, adversity leads to increased compassion for others and prosocial behavior
The data have been mixed about the relationship between experiences of adversity and expressions of compassion and prosocial behavior. However, in the two studies presented in this paper, results consistently showed that a history of adversity leads to increased compassion and prosocial behavior. In the first study, a sample of people from the general population completed surveys and were given a chance to take the prosocial action of donating money to the Red Cross. The second study used the same basic design but the the questionnaires that could have potentially primed different emotional responses were administered the day after the assessment of prosocial behavior, and also a more effortful measure of prosocial behavior was used in which participants were able to help an apparently sick confederate in real time. Both studies showed that a history of adverse experiences predicted empathy, which in turn predicted compassion, which predicted prosocial behavior. The authors explain mixed results in previous research in part as an artifact of using a non-clinical population versus a clinical population.
Take away: Many of us have been softened by the painful events of our lives. These events can help us to be more compassionate and empathic with others who are suffering. This study suggests this is true for many people (but not all). This effect is probably part of why rejection of our past experiences (including trauma) causes so many problems. This study also suggests opportunities for growth. One way into learning from past experiences is to explore with clients whether their history of trauma and other adverse experiences helps them to empathize with and feel compassion for others and for themselves, or if not, what others kinds of reactions they have had instead.
Lim, D., & DeSteno, D. (2016). Suffering and Compassion: The Links Among Adverse Life Experiences, Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behavior. Emotion, Ahead-of-print.