Stress, depression, and an array of other mental health concerns are at an all-time high among college students. Recognizing the debilitating nature of academic and social stressors unique to students, Scandinavian researchers Dundas, Binder, Hansen, and Hjelen Stige (2017) recently developed a brief, self-compassion focused course and measured its effects on multiple domains associated with quality of life for this population. Their results suggest that students may find relief, including improved self-image and increased motivation, in the reduction of self-imposed pressure.
“Self-compassion has been shown to be positively related to mastery orientation, to enable students to discard unreachable goals and adopt more functional goals, to be less defensive when receiving feedback, and to be more motivated to study after a difficult test,” the authors write. “Several experiments have shown that inducing self-compassion (for example through a short writing assignment) may have favorable effects in student samples.”
Although this concept is far-easier identified than actualized, Dundas and colleagues’ short, resource-light course designed to promote self-compassion produced encouraging results when evaluated through in the context of a randomized control trial. Further, effects extended at least six months post-intervention.
Operationally defined as “the disposition to meet distress with self-directed kindness (self-kindness vs. self-judgement), understand that one is not alone in experiencing difficulties (common-humanity vs. isolation), and notice any distressing feelings without getting lost in them (mindfulness vs. over identification),” self-compassion represents a constructive response to life’s obstacles. Dundas and colleagues adapted elements of two mindfulness and self-compassion oriented courses to create the two-week program assessed in their study. Within the program, over a total of three sessions, participants (N = 158) were introduced to mindfulness and self-compassion and challenged to participate in a variety of activities that prompted self-reflection, exploration, and discussion.
One exercise prompted students to think about things about themselves they would like to change or improve, and then to imagine what advice they might give another person in similar circumstances. Such exercises were designed to elicit consideration of differences between how people treat themselves as compared to their approaches to treating others. The discussion that ensued provided participants with a platform to digest these differences, and to experiment with strategies to curb shame and self-criticism.
Results revealed that, as was hypothesized, personal growth self-efficacy and healthy impulse control increased post-intervention, and self-judgment and habitual negative self-directed thinking decreased. The self-compassion program inspired participants to locate inner kindness in the process of reducing some of the negative thoughts that snowball and contribute to some of the mental health issues presenting among college students.
This study suggests that a relatively low-frequency, low-intensity self-compassion intervention can improve self-concept among college students. Potential is reflected in noteworthy effects both immediately following intervention, and at least six months post-intervention. Dundas and team, however, acknowledge limitations including the predominantly female and ethnically homogenous sample of self-selecting participants included within their study, and the number of hypotheses and outcomes evaluated increasing the risk of type 1 errors.
“Given the clear need for interventions addressing student psychological wellbeing, the results of this study are encouraging, as they clearly contradict the common prejudice that self-compassion leads to self-indulgence and is an obstacle to self-regulation, personal growth, and positive behavioral change. As both mindfulness and self-compassion are compatible with several models of counselling, the course can easily be combined with other approaches that have been shown to increase student resilience and mental health, such as cognitive behavioral approaches.”
Practitioners and educators alike, while perhaps fatigued by the trendiness of mindfulness in recent years, would be wise to consider self-compassion techniques in supporting the students they serve. While such an intuitive concept may be easy to dismiss, crippling pressures impacting the day-to-day experiences of college students are often internalized, experienced as significant burdens, and could perhaps be moderately relieved by the proposed intervention.
Dundas, I., Binder, P., Hansen, T. G., & Stige, S. H. (2017). Does a short self-compassion intervention for students increase healthy self-regulation? A randomized control trial. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 58(5), 443-450. (Link)