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Increasing Self-Compassion in PTSD

Countering Negative Beliefs and Thoughts about the Self

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Updated October 25, 2011

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Many people with a diagnosis of PTSD struggle with self-compassion. The symptoms of PTSD can be very intense and can disrupt many areas of a person's life. As a result, people with PTSD may start to experience feelings of guilt or shame, have negative thoughts about themselves, or feel worthless or like a failure.

A lack of self-compassion can have a huge impact on recovery from PTSD. A lack of self-compassion may decrease motivation to continue through those difficult moments in treatment. It may increase feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. For example, a person might think, "I am a failure, so what is the point with continuing with treatment?" A lack of self-compassion can also bring about strong feelings of shame and guilt, which can make emotions even more difficult to manage. Finally, low self-compassion may lead to self-destructive behaviors. For example, a person might begin to engage in deliberate self-harm as a form of self-punishment.

Self-compassion can be difficult to increase; however, it is very important to do so. Below are some strategies for fostering a stronger sense of self-compassion.

Recognize That You Are Human

First, remember that you are human. Oftentimes people will set very high expectations that cannot be met. For example, a person with PTSD may have in their mind a timeline for when their symptoms should be eliminated through treatment. Different people progress through treatment at different paces. Some people notice immediate gains, whereas others may take a little more time to notice benefits from treatment.

Setting very high standards or expectations increases the likelihood that you are not going to meet those expectations, which can increase feelings of worthlessness, helpless, hopelessness, and failure. Recognize that you are human and that there are going to be times when you struggle or slip. This is normal and actually a positive part of the process of recovery. Those moments of struggle can help you identify areas you need to continue to work on, as well as help you identify additional coping strategies to prevent similar struggles in the future.

Be Mindful of Negative Self-Focused Thoughts

Just because you have a negative self-focused thought does not mean it is true. Our thoughts are largely the result of habit. We cannot always trust our thoughts, and this is especially the case for negative thoughts about the self. Such thoughts generally only result in more shame and guilt.

Mindfulness can be a very useful strategy for managing negative thoughts. Being mindful of thoughts helps you take a step back from your thoughts, not connecting with them or buying into them as truth. This will decrease their intensity and eventually decrease the frequency with which they occur.

Practice Self-Care

When people feel low self-compassion, they are at greater risk for engaging in self-destructive behaviors or isolating. When you are experiencing low self-compassion, it is very important to act in a way that is counter to that low self-compassion. Remember, even if we cannot always control our thoughts or feelings, one thing that we can always have some level of control over is our behavior and the choices we make. Therefore, when you are feeling worthless, act in a way that is opposite to that feeling. Basically, engage in some kind of self-care activity. Do something nice for yourself and your body.

Self-care may be a difficult thing to do if you are having very strong negative thoughts or feelings; however, even a small self-care activity can prevent these thoughts and feelings from taking hold. Acting as though you care about yourself can eventually bring about actual feelings and thoughts of self-compassion.

Validate Your Emotions

Another way to increase self-compassion is to validate your emotions. We don't experience emotions randomly. They are there for a reason. Emotions are our body's way of communicating with us. When we beat ourselves up for having certain emotions, all we do is increase our emotional distress. Therefore, recognize that your emotions are important and reasonable. Try to listen to what your emotions are telling you and realize that it is okay to have those emotions.

Reduce Self-Destructive Behaviors

A lack of self-compassion can lead to self-destructive behaviors, such as deliberate self-harm, eating disordered behaviors (for example, binging and restricting), or substance use. These behaviors may be used as a form of self-punishment. In addition, although they may initially reduce feelings of distress, in the long-term they only reinforce a sense of shame, worthlessness, or helplessness. Therefore, it is important to take steps to reduce these behaviors. Strategies focused on impulse control may be particularly useful in this regard.

Practice Acts of Altruism

If you are feeling like there is nothing you can do to help yourself, then make the choice to help others. Acting with compassion towards others can improve your own self-compassion. In addition, there is some evidence that helping others can facilitate recovery from a traumatic event. Helping others (for example, volunteering) can improve your mood, provide a sense of accomplishment and agency, and bring about a sense of worth.

Recognize Your Accomplishments

Finally, recognize what you have accomplished. It is especially important to recognize accomplishments you have made despite the experience of PTSD symptoms. Make note of difficult tasks you have accomplished or challenging situations you have successfully navigated. Recognize accomplishments both big and small. We often brush aside small accomplishments; however, no accomplishment is too small when you have PTSD. Give yourself credit for showing strength and perseverance despite dealing with a PTSD diagnosis.

Self-compassion is very important in recovering from PTSD. However, it is also a very difficult thing to foster. Try out all of the strategies above and discover which combination of activities and behaviors work best for you. Progress may be slow, but even a small amount of self-compassion can have a tremendous impact on your mental and emotional health.

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