Clinical Review

The Role of Self-Compassion in Chronic Illness Care



From the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK.


  • Objective: To present current research and theory on the potential of self-compassion for improving health-related outcomes in chronic illness, and make recommendations for the application of self-compassion interventions in clinical care to improve well-being and facilitate self-management of health in patients with chronic illness.
  • Methods: Narrative review of the literature.
  • Results: Current theory indicates that the self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness components of self-compassion can foster adaptive responses to the perceived setbacks and shortcomings that people experience in the context of living with a chronic illness. Research on self-compassion in relation to health has been examined primarily within non-medical populations. Cross-sectional and experimental studies have demonstrated clear links between self-compassion and lower levels of both perceived stress and physiological indictors of stress. A growing evidence base also indicates that self-compassion is associated with more frequent practice of health-promoting behaviors in healthy populations. Research on self-compassion with chronic illness populations is limited but has demonstrated cross-sectional links to adaptive coping, lower stress and distress, and the practice of important health behaviors. There are several interventions for increasing self-compassion in clinical settings, with limited data suggesting beneficial effects for clinical populations.
  • Conclusion: Self-compassion holds promise as an important quality to cultivate to enhance health-related outcomes in those with chronic health conditions. Further systematic and rigorous research evaluating the effectiveness of self-compassion interventions in chronic illness populations is warranted to fully understand the role of this quality for chronic illness care.

Living with a chronic illness presents a number of challenges that can take a toll on both physical and psychological well-being. Pain, fatigue, and decreased daily functioning are symptoms common to many chronic illnesses that can negatively impact psychological well-being by creating uncertainty about attaining personal goals [1], and contributing to doubts and concerns about being able to fulfil one’s personal and work-related responsibilities [2]. The stress associated with negotiating the challenges of chronic illness can further complicate adjustment by exacerbating existing symptoms via stress-mediated and inflammation regulation pathways [3–5] and compromising the practice of important disease management and health maintenance behaviors [6,7]. These experiences can in turn fuel self-blame and other negative self-evaluations about not being able to meet personal and others’ expectations about managing one’s illness and create a downward spiral of poor adjustment and well-being [8,9].

A growing evidence base suggests that self-compassion is an important quality to help manage the stress and behavior-related issues that can compromise chronic illness care. Defined by Neff [10] as taking a kind, accepting, and non-judgmental stance towards oneself in times of failure or difficulty, self-compassion is associated with several indicators of adjustment in non-medical populations including resilience [11,12] and adaptive coping [13]. In support of the notion that self-compassion can play a role in promoting health behaviors, a recent meta-analysis found that self-compassion is linked to better practice of a range of health-promoting behaviors due in part to its links to adaptive emotions [14]. Research on the role of self-compassion for health-related outcomes with chronic illness populations is limited but nonetheless promising [15–17] , and suggests that self-compassion may be a worthwhile quality to cultivate to improve well-being and facilitate disease self-management.


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