top of page

The Power of Compassion in Autoimmune Disease

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

When you think of holistically supporting chronic illness with Nutritional Therapy, your mind may go to diet, supplements, exercise, and maybe sleep. But, would you consider compassion to be a key factor in improving your disease management? You will after reading this...

Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.” - Chris Germer, Self-compassion Researcher

Self-Compassion 101

Dr Kristin Neff states that having compassion for oneself is no different than having compassion for others. Consider what the experience of compassion feels like...

First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore the homeless person, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult their experience is.

Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to “suffer with”). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly.

Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than pity), it means that you realise that suffering and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. “There but for fortune go I.”

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?

Can stress paired with low levels of self-compassion cause inflammation?

Research seems to confirm so.

A large meta-analysis found that even brief stressors (such as exams) could suppress cellular immunity, and chronic stressors were associated with suppression of both cellular and humoral immunity. (Dickerson, Gruenewald, & Kemeny, 2004).

A separate meta-analysis looked more closely at the relationship between inflammation and the immune reaction in response to psychological stress. It concluded that stress increased levels of circulating Interleukin-6 (IL-6), Interleukin-1 beta (IL-1 beta) and CRP - all markers for inflammation. IL-6 is a prominent pro-inflammatory cytokine driving chronic inflammatory diseases and autoimmune disorders, and so this may help to explain the links between trauma and autoimmune disease development.

Another study discussed how negative self-threatening emotions like shame may orchestrate specific patterns of biological changes. Specifically, that acute threats to the social self increase pro-inflammatory cytokine activity and cortisol, and that these changes occur together with self-shaming (Dickerson, Kemeny, Aziz, Kim, & Fahey, 2004). There is a wealth of research linking shame and self-blame with increases in TNF-a receptor activity and higher baseline levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-6. (Dickerson, Gable, Irwin, Aziz, & Kemeny, 2009), (Rohleder, Chen, Wolf, & Miller, 2008).

Is self-compassion protective against inflammation?

In short: yes.

A study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, looked at the relationship between mental stress, our brains, and inflammation.

The researchers had adult participants do Maths problems in front of a group of judges, plus deliver a five-minute public speech. The researchers took blood samples from the participants, and found that the longer they did maths or spoke in public, the higher their IL-6 levels were.

But what the researchers discovered was that participants with highest measured of self-compassion exhibited significantly lower IL-6 responses, even when controlling for self-esteem, depressive symptoms, demographic factors and distress. These findings suggest that self-compassion may serve as a protective factor against stress-induced inflammation and inflammation-related disease.

This is a powerful message that I want to end with:

Stress in inevitable, but our relationship with ourselves in the present moment contributes to whether we flood our body with inflammation or find compassionate balance for our body to thrive.

Think about it. Do you value yourself? Are you self-critical or self-kind more often? Do you give yourself a break when you mess up?

The study results strongly suggested that acceptance and compassion toward ourselves can fight chronic inflammation from stress and can in turn help decrease the risk of chronic health problems.

So let's give ourselves a break in the name of health! You can take Dr Neff's online quiz to assess your own levels of self compassion.

I will leave you with a mantra from Dr. Neff’s book about building self compassion:

“This is a moment of suffering.

Suffering is part of life.

May I be kind to myself in this moment.

May I give myself the compassion I need.”

Next Steps

Hi I'm Molly, I'm a UK-based Nutritional Therapist (DipION, mBANT, CNHC) and Self-Compassion Coach (MSc) serving my community in Harpenden and online. Here in my little online home, you'll discover the benefits of nutritional therapy and complementary therapies for autoimmune disease and chronic illness.

Want to understand more about nutrition for autoimmune diseases? Download my free recipe book and discover 12 Nutritionist-Certified Recipes to Help Alleviate the Symptoms of Autoimmunity & Chronic Illness.


bottom of page