Q. How can self-compassion affect my health?

A. If you want to improve your physical health, start being kinder to yourself. Recent research on self-compassion shows that self-directed kindness can have a variety of physical and emotional benefits.

People with higher levels of self compassion were more likely to eat well-balanced meals, exercise, sleep better, and manage stress well. In addition, college students who wrote self-compassionate responses to a situation in which they felt bad about themselves were less affected by symptoms such as indigestion, fatigue, disturbed sleep, and poor appetite.

Self-compassion is more than just being gentle with ourselves. According to psychologist Kristen Neff, we must also recognize that we are not alone in making mistakes and experiencing pain - what she calls "common humanity." She describes mindfulness as another important component, for its ability to help us not get too caught up in negative experiences. Stepping back in a nonjudgmental way can strengthen self-kindness and reduce painful feelings of isolation.

These three parts of self-compassion may work to silence a person's internal critic. By replacing the critic with more compassionate self-talk, people can feel less sad, anxious, and angry at themselves. Researchers suggest that this clears the path to healthier decision-making.

Specifically, there is evidence that people who are more self-compassionate feel less sad, weak, or embarrassed in response to health problems. They are more likely to follow doctors' recommendations, seek medical care when symptoms appear, and use positive self-talk, such as "almost everyone has medical problems."

If you have difficulty treating yourself with care, sensitivity, and respect, the good news is that self-compassion can be developed with practice. A number of exercises are available here.

Scott Glassman, PsyD, is a clinical assistant professor of psychology and associate director of the master's program in mental-health counseling at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. Email: scottgl@pcom.edu.