PTSD and Self-Compassion

Thinking More Positively About Yourself

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If you have a diagnosis of PTSD, you may struggle with self-compassion. The symptoms of PTSD can be very intense and can disrupt many areas of a person's life. As a result, you may experience feelings of guilt or shame, negative thoughts about yourself or feelings that you're worthless or a failure.

These are common thoughts in people with PTSD - but they're not true and they can make matters worse for you. We'll share strategies for learning how to be more compassionate toward yourself.

Why a Lack of Self-Compassion is Dangerous for People With PTSD

A lack of self-compassion can have a huge impact on recovery from PTSD. Here's why:

  • This way of thinking and living may decrease your motivation to continue through difficult moments in treatment.
  • It may increase feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. For example, you might think, "I'm a failure, so what's the point with continuing with treatment?"
  • A lack of self-compassion can also bring about strong feelings of shame and guilt, which can make emotions even more difficult to manage.
  • Finally, low self-compassion may lead to self-destructive behaviors. For example, you might begin to engage in deliberate self-harm as a form of self-punishment.

Self-compassion can be difficult to increase, but it's very important for your recovery and well-being to do so.

Below are some strategies for fostering a stronger sense of self-compassion as you deal with PTSD.

How People with PTSD Can Increase Their Self-Compassion

Fortunately, there are many ways to work on your sense of self-compassion. Here are some of the most effective strategies:

  • Recognize that you're human. If you set very high expectations that you can't meet, it is hard to feel compassionate about yourself. For example, you may have in your mind a timeline for improving your PTSD symptoms through treatment. But different people progress through treatment at different paces. Some people notice immediate gains, whereas others may take a little more time to notice benefits from treatment. Setting very high standards or expectations increases the likelihood that you won't meet them, which can increase feelings of worthlessness, helpless, hopelessness, and failure. Recognize that you're human and that there are going to be times when you struggle or slip. This is normal and actually a positive part of the process of recovery. Those moments of struggle can help you identify areas you need to continue to work on, as well as help you find new coping strategies to prevent similar struggles in the future.
  • Be mindful of negative self-focused thoughts. Just because you have a negative self-focused thought doesn't mean it's true. Our thoughts are largely the result of habit. We can't always trust them, and this is especially the case for negative thoughts about the self. Such thoughts generally only result in more shame and guilt. Mindfulness can be a very useful strategy for managing negative thoughts. Being mindful of thoughts helps you take a step back from them, so you don't connect with them or buying into them as truth. This will decrease their intensity and, eventually, the frequency with which they occur.
  • Practice self-care. When people feel low self-compassion, they're at greater risk for engaging in self-destructive behaviors or isolating themselves from social support. When you're experiencing low self-compassion, it's very important to act in a way that is counter to those feelings. Remember: Even if we can't always control our thoughts or feelings, we always have some level of control over our behavior and the choices we make. So when you're feeling worthless, act in a way that is opposite to that feeling by engaging in some kind of self-care activity. Do something nice for yourself and your body. Self-care may be a difficult thing to do if you're having very strong negative thoughts or feelings. But even a small self-care activity can prevent these thoughts and feelings from taking hold. Acting as though you care about yourself can eventually bring about actual feelings and thoughts of self-compassion.
  • Validate your emotions. Another way to increase self-compassion is to validate your emotions. We don't experience emotions randomly. They are there for a reason. Emotions are our body's way of communicating with us. When we beat ourselves up for having certain emotions, all we do is increase our emotional distress. Therefore, recognize that your emotions are important and reasonable. Try to listen to what your emotions are telling you and realize that it's OK to have those emotions.
  • Reduce self-destructive behaviors. A lack of self-compassion can lead to self-destructive behaviors, such as deliberate self-harm, eating disordered behaviors (for example, binging and restricting) or substance use. These behaviors may be a form of self-punishment, and they're very destructive if you're also dealing with PTSD. Although they may initially reduce your feelings of distress, in the long-term they'll only reinforce a sense of shame, worthlessness or helplessness. It's important to take steps to reduce these behaviors. Strategies focused on impulse control may be particularly useful for this.
  • Practice acts of kindness. If you're feeling like there's nothing you can do to help yourself, then make the choice to help others. Acting with compassion toward others can improve your own self-compassion. Plus, there's some evidence that helping others can facilitate recovery from a traumatic event. Helping others by volunteering, for example, can improve your mood, provide a sense of accomplishment and agency and bring about a sense of worth.
  • Recognize your accomplishments. Finally, recognize what you have accomplished. It's especially important to recognize accomplishments you have made despite the experience of PTSD symptoms. Make note of difficult tasks you have accomplished or challenging situations you have successfully navigated. Recognize accomplishments both big and small. We often brush aside small accomplishments, but no accomplishment is too small when you have PTSD. Give yourself credit for showing strength and perseverance despite dealing with a PTSD diagnosis.

Self-compassion is very important in recovering from PTSD. But it's is also a very difficult thing to foster. Try out all of the strategies above and discover which combination of activities and behaviors work best for you. Your progress may be slow, but even a small amount of self-compassion can have a tremendous impact on your mental and emotional health.

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can be kinder to yourself.

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By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.