How Self-Compassion Helps with Anxiety

Anxiety can be a loud voice in your head telling you that something bad is going to happen.   Your heart rate starts to quicken, your thoughts speed up, and you feel a knot in your stomach. At times, you might feel disconnected from yourself or the world around you.

Moments in which you are experiencing anxiety can be quite uncomfortable. They can also be an opportunity to practice relating to yourself with self-compassion.

What is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion has three parts:

  1. Self-kindness (instead of self-judgment)
    Self-kindness involves opening up to your experience in the present moment, whether feelings of joy or sadness, and acknowledging your experience with warmth and love.
  2. Common humanity (instead of isolation)
    Self-compassion includes an acknowledgement that suffering is a normal part of being a human being. Often we feel alone or isolated in our suffering, but it is actually what connects us to others.
  3. Mindfulness (instead of over-identifying)
    Mindfulness involves observing thoughts and feelings, rather than identifying asthoughts and feelings. There is a difference between noticing the content of your thinking (e.g., “I’m having the thought that something bad is going to happen”) and taking your thoughts at face value and buying into the content of your thinking (e.g., “Something badis going to happen”).

One important study found that more self-compassion is associated with less symptoms of anxiety and depression. This does not mean that people engaging in self-compassion do not feel anxious or sad sometimes. They certainly do, as do all of us. However, welcoming rather than criticizing experiences of anxiety allows us to let go of struggling with anxiety, helping us let go of harsh judgments of ourselves and our experiences.

One of the great things about self-compassion exercises is that they can be practiced at any time. You can feel incredibly sad, anxious, or frustrated with yourself, and begin to build a habit of self-compassion.

How Do I Practice Self-Compassion?

Dr. Kristin Neff is probably the world’s leading expert on self-compassion and one of the key exercises she teaches is something called the “Self-Compassion Break.”

The exercise is done when you are in the midst of a situation that is causing your suffering or you are feeling something like anxiety, frustration, sadness, or any other painful emotion. You can use this exercise during any moment where you are having a hard time. The basic instructions include three steps:

  1. Acknowledge the pain or discomfort that you are feeling. You might say, “This is a moment of suffering.”
  2. Acknowledge your connectedness to others. You could say, “Suffering is a part of life.”
  3. Put your hands over your heart and say, “May I be kind to myself.”

If you want to hear an audio version, you can listen to it here. For a more detailed description of the exercise, see here. Once you practice the exercise a few times, you’ll find you can do it quite quickly whenever you need it.


Relating to your anxiety with self-compassion can help you make space for it, allowing it to be, rather than getting caught in a prolonged game of “anxiety tug-of-war.” Through self-compassion–through learning to relate to yourself and your experiences with kindness and compassion–you can learn to let go of internal struggles and connect more fully with the world around you.

For more self-compassion meditations or exercises, you can visit Dr. Neff’s resources or resources compiled by Portland Psychotherapy.

Click here to learn more about Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy

Kaylin Jones, Ph.D.

Author: Kaylin Jones, Ph.D.

Kaylin is a psychologist resident who specializes in the treatment of anxiety and PTSD.