Keep calm and tick on.
Ann orange flower coming out of the cut out of a heart
Credit: Getty Images / Roc Canals

To protect our hearts, we know our genetics, what we eat (hat tip to the DASH diet), how our biometrics clock in and how physically active we are all play an important role in our overall heart disease risk profile. (ICYMI, here's why you should protect your heart health even if you don't have heart disease.)

Last week, scientists shared another fascinating finding of how we might be able to lower our risk for heart-related health challenges. Middle-aged women between 45 to 67 years old who practiced self-compassion and mindfulness practices had lower risk for cardiovascular disease—and that's regardless of other traditional heart disease risk factors, like high blood pressure, insulin resistance and blood cholesterol levels—according to a new study published December 16th in the journal Health Psychology.

To land on this verdict, a team of University of Pittsburgh researchers asked 195 women age 45 to 67 to take a short questionnaire about how often they felt they viewed themselves as inadequate and if they felt disappointed by self-perceived flaws—and how often they have a more caring and tender view of themselves. Each participant also had an ultrasound of her carotid arteries, which are large vessels in the neck that transport blood from the heart to the brain.

Women who ranked higher on the researchers' self-compassion scale had thinner walls surrounding their carotid arteries and less plaque build-up inside those arteries. Both of these arterial features have been correlated with lower risk for heart disease, including strokes and heart attacks, in subsequent years. These findings rang true even when the scientists controlled for other lifestyle and mental factors like smoking status, depression symptoms and physical activity rates.

"A lot of research has been focused on studying how stress and other negative factors may impact cardiovascular health, but the impact of positive psychological factors, such as self-compassion, is far less known," Rebecca Thurston, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, clinical and translational science, epidemiology and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh says in a UPMC press release. "These findings underscore the importance of practicing kindness and compassion, particularly toward yourself. We are all living through extraordinarily stressful times, and our research suggests that self-compassion is essential for both our mental and our physical health."

Many mental health pros have prescribed mindfulness and self-compassion activities (such as positive affirmations and other self care-focused habits) for those who have high levels of stress and even to help reduce symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. And these new findings prove that using your heart to love not only others, but yourself, can actually help that heart protect itself.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done, but simple moments of self-compassion and mindfulness can really add up. Unsure of where to start? Try:

  • Keeping a "nice list" of generous feedback or words you receive from others to remind yourself of how awesome you are when you're in doubt
  • Following along with this free and super-soothing self-compassion meditation on YouTube
  • Thinking of how you'd respond to a friend in similar circumstances when you feel like you're slipping into self-critical territory

Just in time, the researchers add in the press release: "During the pandemic, the stressors have amplified, especially for women…Mindfulness practices, such as meditation, are gaining popularity among U.S. adults. Exhausted from a barrage of stressors at work and in their personal life, people increasingly choose to turn inward to help manage their mood and emotions."