By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Sometimes, disparate seemingly unconnected things can baffle scientists for many decades before a pattern appears. Then, after the pattern is found, the connections seems so obvious and clear that everyone wonders why they didn't see it before.
Such was the case with the seemingly unrelated problems of depression and chronic pain. One is psychological, the other physical. Yet, both these problems are being successfully treated by a new concept in science --- self-compassion therapy.
What Is Self Compassion Therapy?
Self-compassion therapy, as it is understood today, was pioneered by Dr. Kristin D. Neff of the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Neff sometimes teams up with others such as Dr. Christopher K. Germer of Harvard Medical School.
The scientists propose this definition of self-compassion. It means "being touched by one's own suffering, generating the desire to alleviate one's suffering and treat oneself with understanding and concern", according to a 2012 study by Neff and Germer.
If we can paraphrase, if the Golden Rule is " do unto others as you would have them do unto you", then self-compassion is "do unto yourself, as you would do unto someone in distress or suffering".
Self- Compassion Alleviates Pain
A self hug is a simple act of crossing your arms around yourself. Yet this simple act can heal.
Scientists have learned that giving yourself a hug actually alleviates pain. A 2011 study from the University Milano-Bicocco entitled "The Analgesic Effect of Crossing the Arms" discovered that simply crossing your arms --- forcing your body to cross the midline of your body --- reduces pain. The reason this happens is that the act of crossing this midline confuses your brain. The brain is temporarily unable to map the sides of your brain with the alignment of your arms and this interrupts its ability to route pain correctly.
As the study puts it "the ability to determine precisely the location of sensory stimuli" becomes impaired when we cross our arms.
Why don't more people know this? Why isn't this knowledge being put into use in our hospitals, our schools and in our homes?
Give Yourself a Hug to Medicate Your Pain
Giving yourself a hug can interrupt physical pain, as we have seen. But it also can medicate emotional pain.
Hugging yourself is an act of self-compassion. Being self compassionate is associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to research by Dr. Neff and others.
Making a regular practice of beginning your day with 5 minutes of self-hugging actually triggers feelings of well-being, restfulness and balance. These, in turn, enable greater self-belief and confidence.