Want to relax and also give your immune system a boost? It could be as simple as thinking some positive thoughts about yourself and others.
Researchers from the Universities of Exeter and Oxford in the U.K. were able to produce detectable mental and physical benefits in healthy students who participated in a study designed to look at the benefits of self-compassion.
"Previous research has found that self-compassion was related to higher levels of well-being and better mental health, but we didn't know why," explains lead researcher Anke Karl from the University of Exeter. "Our study is helping us understand the mechanism of how being kind to yourself when things go wrong could be beneficial in psychological treatments."
The experiment involved splitting the subjects into groups that listened to 11-minute audio recordings with different sets of instructions. Some groups heard instructions encouraging them to be kind to themselves, while others were meant to induce a critical inner voice among the participants.
All the people participating had their heart rates and sweat response measured and were also asked questions about how they were feeling.
The groups that listened to the more positive and compassionate instructions saw their heart rate and heartbeat variability drop and also showed less sweat response. They also reported feeling more self-compassion and connection with others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the opposite responses were seen in the test subjects listening to instructions meant to induce self-critical thoughts.
"These findings suggest that being kind to oneself switches off the threat response and puts the body in a state of safety and relaxation that is important for regeneration and healing," said co-author Hans Kirschner, also from Exeter.
The research could have implications for people with depression, and future experiments will further examine the potential benefits of self-compassion.
For everyone else, the findings serve as evidence that those mantras and other examples of positive self-talk that have often been derided in popular culture might not be such a bad idea after all.