A new experimental study in Canada found that self-compassion training and relaxation training are equally effective in reducing the symptoms of social anxiety. Groups undergoing these treatments had better outcome results compared to the waitlist group i.e., the control group that had yet to undergo treatment. The study was published in Cognitive Behavior Therapy.
Self-compassion is the practice of treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, particularly in times of difficulty or personal suffering. It involves recognizing and acknowledging one’s own pain or struggles with warmth and empathy, rather than judgment or self-criticism, extending the same compassion and care to oneself that one would offer to a close friend or a loved one.
Scientific studies and therapeutic practice have indicated that learning how to be self-compassionate might be effective for improving the psychological well-being in community groups, showing also promise in clinical populations. A key aspect of self-compassion is recognizing that suffering is a shared human experience, a recognition that runs opposite to thinking about oneself as unique and alone in suffering.
Studies have shown that higher levels of self-compassion are associated with lower levels of psychopathology. This has led researchers to believe that self-compassion training might be an effective approach to treating psychological disorders. It may be particularly beneficial in treating the social anxiety disorder. Excessive fear of embarrassment and social scrutiny that is typical for individuals suffering from this disorder often makes them avoid self-disclosure and seeking treatment due to stigma associated with receiving mental health care.
Study authors Michelle J. N. Teale Sapach, and R. Nicholas Carleton wanted to explore whether self-compassion training might be an effective way to reduce symptoms of social anxiety disorder. They also wanted to know whether self-compassion training is superior to applied relaxation training.
Applied relaxation training was shown, in previous studies, to be comparable in efficacy in reducing social anxiety disorder symptoms to existing main psychotherapeutic treatments (e.g., cognitive-behavior therapy). In this way, if self-compassion training proved to be superior to applied relaxation training it would imply that it also might be superior to the most frequently used psychotherapeutic approaches.
Participants of the study were recruited from Saskatchewan, Canada through flyers and web-based advertisements. There were 63 of them in total. Participants were randomly divided into 3 groups – one that underwent self-compassion training, another that underwent an applied relaxation training, and the third group was a waitlist group. The waitlist group was told that they will undergo the treatment, but this treatment did not happen during the period of the study.
Participants in the two treatment sessions were given access to one session each week for six weeks via automated emails. The self-compassion training was conducted using an audio guided self-help course titled “Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.” The applied relaxation training was also applied in the form of a self-help procedure. It consisted of six text-based sessions designed to match the length of the self-compassion training.
Participants completed outcome assessments at the start of the study, in the middle of the treatments, after the treatments, and 3 months after the treatments. These included assessments of psychopathological symptoms, social anxiety disorder symptoms, fear of negative and positive evaluation, self-compassion, fear of self-compassion, and the degree to which participants adhered to treatments.
Results showed that 71% of participants completed the six sessions within 6 weeks. The rest of the participants had to extend the timeline for completion due to various reasons such as illness, vacations or work obligations. Participants in the self-compassion group needed longer time on average to complete the training.
Comparing different groups, results showed that the self-compassion treatment was not superior to the applied relaxation condition in any of the time points when assessments were made. However, the self-compassion treatment did increase self-compassion and reduce the fear of self-compassion.
Participants in both groups undergoing treatment showed positive changes compared to the waitlist group. More than half of these participants were classified as recovered or clinically improved after treatment. The self-compassion treatment had somewhat higher rates of clinically significant changes in self-compassion and reducing fear of self-compassion compared to the applied relaxation.
“The current randomized controlled trial provided preliminary support for the effectiveness of the audio program, Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. The current randomized controlled trial was the first to examine self-compassion training in individuals with social anxiety disorder and the results suggested self-compassion training, like applied relaxation training, was helpful in reducing social anxiety disorder symptoms. Using self-guided self-compassion training programs may help mitigate treatment barriers faced by individuals with social anxiety disorder,” the study authors concluded.
The study gives an important contribution to developing treatments for social anxiety disorder. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the participants were self-selected for participation and most of them were females who were employed full-time. Results on other categories of individuals and with different motivations might not be the same.
The study, “Self-compassion training for individuals with social anxiety disorder: a preliminary randomized controlled trial”, was authored by Michelle J. N. Teale Sapach, and R. Nicholas Carleton.