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Stress Be Gone! – A psychological study investigates how self-compassion and mindfulness helps processing stressful situations.

The researchers are particularly interested in everyday stress. Photo: AdobeStock_141210590
Photo :
The researchers are particularly interested in everyday stress. Photo: AdobeStock_141210590

Once again I haven’t managed what I had planned to do. Others can do it, but not me. — Many people know such depressing thoughts. To deal with them, self-compassion and mindfulness can help. Researchers of the University of Potsdam and the University of Greifswald are exploring the impact that self-compassion and mindfulness — in conjunction with other factors — can have on coping with stress. Participants of the “MindOn” study spend an entire week using an app to talk about their everyday stress situations. Carolin Krafzik ventured a self-experiment and met with psychologist Christina Ewert, who supervises this study in Potsdam.

I am looking intensely at my computer screen. It is not easy to spontaneously assess my behavior. Do I accept my mistakes and weaknesses? Am I kind to myself when I am going through a hard time or when I am suffering? The questions make me think. What does it mean to be kind to yourself? Three workstations to my left, another subject is also focusing on the questions. We are sitting far apart from each other so that we do not see the other’s statements and are not tempted to enter an answer different from what we would on our own.

“MindOn” is a project conceived by the psychologists Christina Ewert from the University of Potsdam and Cosma Hoffmann from the University of Greifswald. About 200 subjects participated in the study at both universities. While the researcher in Greifswald was emphasizing mindfulness, Christina Ewert was focusing on self-compassion. But what exactly is meant by mindfulness and self-compassion? Psychology defines mindfulness as “focusing one's awareness intentionally on the present moment and the surrounding environment as well as an accepting attitude towards the sensations that we have,” Hoffmann explains. Being mindful is, for example, consciously perceiving how something tastes without being distracted by the smartphone or not to respond impulsively in difficult situations but to pause and observe what you feel at that moment. Self-compassion, on the other hand, means “to show compassion to oneself, especially in hurtful times,” Ewert emphasizes. “As you would show to others who experience suffering.” This also includes mindfulness, self-care, and the awareness that suffering is a natural part of life. In addition, it can also express itself in actions such as doing something good for yourself, making yourself a cup of tea or lovingly stroking your head and taking time for yourself.

The questionnaire that I am filling out on the computer gathers information about my personal traits. Am I the more fearful type? Am I an outgoing person? Do I complete tasks thoroughly? It also analyzes how I perceive my environment. How often do I pay attention to sounds like the ticking of clocks, birdsong, or passing cars? The psychologists use my self-assessment to get an idea of how my character affects my dealing with stress. After completing the first questionnaire, I scan a QR code with my mobile phone, which starts another survey in an app that I downloaded before. For a week, my phone buzzes three times a day, asking me to record my current stress experience and mood. It buzzes at different times every day, between 10:00 am and 10:00 pm. The information from the first questionnaire is finally linked with the information from my app on my situational stress experience.

Ewert’s work is based on the stress model by Richard Lazarus and Kristin Neff’s theory on self-compassion. According to this theory, it depends on the individual’s personality whether a situation is perceived as stressful. Subjective stress occurs when something is perceived as threatening and one’s own coping possibilities are considered insufficient. Here, self-compassion and mindfulness come into play. Hoffmann suspects, “The more mindful a person is, the less threatening he or she perceives a stressful situation.” Ewert’s hypothesis on self-compassion is similar, but also includes various personality facets. “If someone, who is actually very neurotic, is self-compassionate in a suffering situation, he or she may experience a painful situation as less stressful.”
The researchers are particularly interested in everyday stress. “That’s why we decided to go for an app study because we can observe the effects of different degrees of self-compassion or mindfulness on the perception of current stress experience.”

I am participating in the study in a rather stressful time for me because I have recently moved. I’m standing on the ladder and screwing on my new cupboard as my smartphone buzzes far below me. I am quite annoyed, step down the ladder and answer the questionnaire for the third time today and for the ninth time this week. I am asked to specify what I have thought in stressful situations since the last interview and how I have reacted. The app suggests answers and I have to assess to what extent they apply to me. “I’ve concentrated on changing something about my situation.”, or, “I've told myself that’s not true.” It also records my emotional state. Have I been happy, worried, nervous, or relaxed in the last few hours?

The researchers also want to investigate whether mindfulness and self-compassion are independent traits that influence stress perception and coping with stress or only a compilation of other personality facets already established in psychology. If their results confirm mindfulness and self-compassion as independent facets, Ewert and Hoffmann want to make sure that they are firmly anchored in stress research. “MindOn” is about in-depth basic research. In practice, it could contribute to a more targeted therapeutic approach. “It is important to integrate self-compassion and mindfulness into everyday therapeutic practice. Our goal is to better understand how exactly and in whom self-compassion and mindfulness work in regulating stress, to develop more effective therapeutic interventions for specific groups or certain diseases,” says Ewert.

The survey is over. At first, I am glad that I no longer have to provide information about my health three times a day. But over time I begin to miss the short moments when I was listening to myself. The app has encouraged me to regularly reflect on my feelings and behavior. A small therapeutic effect that was good for me. Every now and then I still ask myself the questions and think about how I feel and how I deal with stressful situations. I am grateful to have learned about self-compassion and mindfulness and determined to take it into my everyday life.

The Researchers

Christina Ewert studied psychology at the University of Greifswald. Since May 2017, she has been a PhD student at the Chair of Personality Psychology and Psychological Assessment. The study “MindOn” is part of her doctoral thesis at the University of Potsdam being supervised by Prof. Michela Schröder-Abé.
E-Mail: cewertuni-potsdamde

Cosma Hoffmann studied psychology at the University of Greifswald. Since February 2017, she has been research assistant at the Chair of Differential and Personality Psychology and Psychological Diagnostics in Greifswald.
E-Mail: cosma.hoffmannuni-greifswaldde

The Project

Funding: Senate Commission for Research and Young Academics (FNK) of the University of Potsdam and Potsdam Graduate School
Duration: since 2017
Investigators: Christina Ewert (University of Potsdam) and Cosma Hoffmann (University of Greifswald)

Text: Carolin Krafzik
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Sabine Schwarz
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktionuni-potsdamde