Self-compassion might help temper the link between psychological distress and suicide risk among U.S. military veterans, according to new research published in the scientific journal Mindfulness. The study suggests that adopting a kind and non-judgmental view of oneself can have a protective effect, particularly in times of crisis.

“There are several elements of this study that are interesting to me, including the focus on suicide prevention, since suicide rates continue to rise in the United States and in our military and veteran populations,” said study author Jameson K. Hirsch, a professor and assistant chair in the Department of Psychology at East Tennessee State University.

“The focus of our study on self-compassion is important, as it provides support for the beneficial effects of this positive psychological factor in a vulnerable population and impacts a high-risk behavior — suicide. Finally, this study is unique because it examines the theoretical assumptions of self-compassion; that is, does self-compassion actually become more salient during times of distress? Turns out that it does.”

The study of 541 U.S. military veterans found that about 30% of the participants had thought about killing themselves sometimes, often, or very often in the past year, and 12% had attempted suicide at least once in their life.

Participants who agreed with statements such as “I try to be understanding and patient towards the aspects of my personality I don’t like” and “I try to see my failings as part of the human condition” tended to display less suicidal behaviors.

The negative relationship between self-compassion and suicidal behavior was even stronger when there were higher levels of depressive symptoms, higher levels of both anger and shame, and higher levels of perceived burdensomeness and lower levels of belongingness.

“Our findings suggest that, during times of interpersonal and psychological distress, the beneficial association between self-compassion and suicide becomes stronger, rather than weaker. In other words, self-compassion is a coping skill that can be cultivated during the ‘good times’ for use during the ‘bad times,’ when it emerges as a potential self-soothing process,” Hirsch explained to PsyPost.

“Our ongoing research suggests that this effect also occurs in the context of other mental and physical health outcomes, meaning that being kind to yourself is good for your health! But, it is not always easy to engage in self-kindness — it takes practice, including understanding that others also have similar experiences and emotions, and being able to engage with our lives in a mindful and meaningful way.”

As with all research, the study includes some limitations.

“Our study is cross-sectional, and prospective and longitudinal research is needed to support the beneficial effects we are asserting. Also, even though veterans are a vulnerable sample, research is needed with other clinical and non-clinical groups, for the purpose of replication,” Hirsch said.

“There are always other questions, which is why I love psychological science. For example, additional investigation of the mechanisms of action of self-compassion is necessary, for an array of mental and physical health outcomes, to aid in the development of effective interventions. Such interventions would then need to be assessed for efficacy, but being kind to ourselves is not something that is reserved for therapy – self-compassion is something we can all practice anywhere and at any time.”

Previous research has found that taking part in self-compassion exercises can calm the heart rate and reduce the body’s autonomic threat response.

“As a clinical psychologist, I always hope that my research interests can have some impact on the real-world experiences of people experiencing difficult times. Although positive psychology and constructs such as self-compassion are not a panacea, they do offer a window of opportunity for consumers and clinicians to engage in empowerment-based and motivationally-focused therapeutic strategies that can provide a framework for resiliency during times of distress,” Hirsch added.

The study, “Self-Compassion and Suicide Risk in Veterans: When the Going Gets Tough, Do the Tough Benefit More from Self-Compassion?“, was authored by Jessica Kelliher Rabon, Jameson K. Hirsch, Andrea R. Kaniuka, Fuschia Sirois, Byron D. Brooks, and Kristin Neff.