Clinical psychologist, Dr Sophie Day, has been researching how people with MS adjust to having a long-term condition. In particular, her research focuses on the potential benefits of developing more self-compassion and resilience.
Here Sophie talks about the findings of her research and provides some practical strategies which, through a little bit of self reflection, encourage you to be kinder to, and more accepting of, yourself.
What do we mean by self-compassion and resilience?
Self-compassion is the ability to be kind, accepting and understanding of oneself in times of difficulty. It’s made up of several different factors.
- Mindfulness – evaluating negative emotions in a more helpful way so they don’t become amplified or avoided.
- Self-kindness – showing care and compassion to yourself.
- Common humanity – the idea that other people may be going through a similar experience to you; you’re not alone.
Resilience is linked to self-compassion in a way. It is focused on the ability to bounce back in times of stress or adversity and grow positively following challenging experiences. The idea is about you returning to the functioning you experienced before either a trauma or a diagnosis of a medical condition.
Another term looked at in this area is post-traumatic growth (also known as benefit finding) – the idea that people can actually go above the functioning they experienced before a trauma or a diagnosis by developing new behaviours and attitudes. Some theory suggests that post-traumatic growth is a stage above resilience, and we looked to test this in my research.
How the study was carried out
The first part of the study was a review of the current literature of psychological growth and the impact on functioning. We carried out a quantitative review of research covering psychological growth (ie resilience, post-traumatic growth, benefit finding) in MS. We were looking at the relationship between these qualities and wellbeing and distress. Specifically we wanted to see whether psychological growth was linked to reduced distress and improved wellbeing.
The second part of the research was an international survey which was completed online by over 200 people with MS. The survey encompassed a range of questions focusing on self-compassion, quality of life, stress, coping and perceived cognitive functioning to explore the relationships between these factors.
Our quantitative review found that psychological growth was related to improved wellbeing and reduced distress, with greater effects shown for resilience than post-traumatic growth. This suggests that resilience is different to post-traumatic growth and may require fewer resources to achieve.
The survey study found that higher levels of self-compassion were linked with improvements in quality of life and coping, reduced stress levels and fewer reported memory and thinking problems. The improvements in memory and thinking were found to be linked to reduced levels of stress.
Overall our research suggests that increased self-compassion and psychological growth are beneficial for improved adjustment to MS, and appear to have a positive impact on coping, quality of life, stress, memory and thinking, well-being and levels of distress in the context of MS.
How to build resilience and be more self-compassionate
Self-compassion and resilience are often interlinked and many people have a lot of resilience already and resources they can tap into. There are however some simple exercises that can be a good place to start. It can feel hard for people in the beginning to understand what self-compassion is or how to practise it, so here is one example to demonstrate how you can adapt your thoughts to be kinder to yourself.
Turning self-criticism into self-compassion
Often people will think about all the housework that needs to be done. If there are lots of jobs that need doing and you don't get them done, you might start thinking negatively about yourself.
You might think:
"I've not done this so I'm really lazy. I shouldn't be resting, I should be doing the housework. Other people would be able to do it all and do it better than I can do it."
You can adapt your way of thinking about this problem to be more self-compassionate:
"If I push myself I'm going to end up feeling worse than I feel right now. I've done the amount that I feel capable to do today and that's good enough. I can do the other bits when I have more time and energy. What I've achieved is good for me and comparing myself to others may not be helpful. It is ok to feel tired; I've used a lot of energy today."
Could you apply this to a situation in your life and turn your self-critical thoughts into more self-compassionate ones?
Practise self-compassion when you’re able to – try not to become critical of yourself if you feel like you’re not doing it often enough or doing it right. Try to notice times where you were self-critical and think about how that made you feel. How would you have felt if you’d used a bit of self-kindness instead?
Another really useful place to start with self-compassion is a website called self-compassion.org which was developed by researcher Dr Kristen Neff. Through a range of resources and exercises, it shows how self-compassion can be useful practically in daily life. Some of the practical exercises teach you how to treat yourself as you would a friend and how to reframe self-critical thoughts. It may feel a little alien to begin with but it’s something many people find helpful – just keep practising!
By developing more self-compassion you can feel more able to cope with stresses and adversities in a less critical way, helping to build your resilience.
Coping with the uncertainty of the future
It’s really difficult to sit with that feeling of uncertainty about the future. You can start to feel quite angry about it, understandably, and want to actively do things to make things better or to reduce the uncertainty, but sometimes that’s just not possible. You can be on a disease modifying drug, you can be doing exercise and lots of other things to keep well, but sometimes that uncertainty is still there.
Sometimes acknowledging that the future is uncertain is important for people. There’s often this fight against it and sometimes people feel like they could be doing better or doing more. That is generally quite self-critical and the idea of self-compassion is being able to recognise that actually I’m doing the things that I can be doing, I don’t really have control over what’s going to happen next, but I can just try to manage that as and when I can. That’s really important – acknowledging that the future isn’t certain.
Only you can know what your journey is like and how it feels to live with MS for you, but acknowledging that you’re doing the best that you can to cope with this unpredictable journey can help.
Dr Sophie Day is a clinical psychologist working in a neuropsychology team in Sheffield. She sees people with a range of cognitive difficulties caused by neurological conditions such as MS. Sophie is particularly interested in understanding what factors affect adjustment to long-term conditions like MS.