May 2015 Research Update

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:

Fear of Self-Compassion Linked to Increased PTSD Symptom Severity

Given that self-compassion has been shown to be helpful for trauma survivors, this study examined fear of self-compassion as something that could contribute to more severe PTSD. What the authors found was that fear of self-compassion was indeed problematic, but only for people who were psychologically inflexible. To illustrate this, if a trauma survivor thinks “I don’t deserve self-compassion” and is rigid about that thinking, she is more likely to have more severe trauma symptoms. However, if she has the thought that she does not deserve self-compassion, but can hold that thought lightly, this thinking may not lead to increased symptoms.

Take away: We want to pay attention to whether our clients with trauma symptoms are afraid of self-compassion, and if so, whether they are psychologically flexible. Fortunately, there are existing validated measures of fear of compassion and psychological flexibility to help with this work. Self-compassion work may be ineffective, or even backfire if fear of self-compassion isn’t recognized and addressed.

If you want to use it in your practice, you can find the measure of fear of compassion here.

Read more:
Miron, L. R., Sherrill, A. M., & Orcutt, H. K. (2014). Fear of self-compassion and psychological inflexibility interact to predict PTSD symptom severity. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science.

Shame-Proneness, but not Anxiety, predicts Autonomic Arousal in Interpersonal Trauma Survivors

In this study, the authors assessed vagal tone, a measure of autonomic arousal, in female interpersonal trauma survivors with PTSD. Although much emphasis has been placed on fear and anxiety in the treatment of PTSD, the authors found that shame-proneness, but not anxiety predicted increased in autonomic arousal during a trauma reminder paradigm.

Take away: Clients with PTSD who have a tendency toward shame may experience more distress in reaction to trauma reminders.  This adds to growing evidence that shame is an important emotion to attend to in treating PTSD, particularly among those experiencing assaults from close others (i.e., betrayal trauma). This means that self-compassion and self-soothing work may be particularly important for shame-prone trauma survivors.  

Read more:
Freed, S., & D’Andrea, W. (2015). Autonomic arousal and emotion in victims of interpersonal violence: Shame proneness but not anxiety predicts vagal tone. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation (just-accepted).

Self-Compassionate Young Adults Show Lower Autonomic Arousal Responses to Stress

This study examined autonomic responses to the Trier Social Stress Task, which is a frequently used task for inducing stress. In the task, participants are asked to give an oral presentation in front of a stony-faced audience. The authors found that, even when controlling for self-esteem, people higher in self-compassion were less stressed by the task. They conclude that people high in self-compassion may be less likely to experience a stressor as self-threatening.

Take away: Self-compassion work may help not just with trauma-related stress, but with day-to-day stressors as well, including those related to social anxiety and fear of evaluation or interpersonal rejection.

Read more:
Breines, J. G., McInnis, C. M., Kuras, Y. I., Thoma, M. V., Gianferante, D., Hanlin, L., ... & Rohleder, N. (2015). Self-compassionate young adults show lower salivary alpha-amylase responses to repeated psychosocial stress. Self and Identity (ahead-of-print), 1-13.

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