David A. Sbarra

If you're divorced, lonely and not feeling the love on this Valentine's Day, psychologists have a tip for you:

Love yourself - it might even prolong your life.

University of Arizona psychologist David Sbarra, in a study published this month, said a concept known as self-compassion rises to the top of strategies that can help you deal in a healthy manner with the consequences of a break-up.

Don't confuse self-compassion with self-esteem. That latter concept contains elements of hubris and self-deception.

Self-compassion, said Sbarra, is a more realistic appraisal that allows you to recognize your failings.

You are only human, you are not perfect, and you have experienced some painful emotions. Forgive yourself and move on.

"Merely feeling good about yourself is not enough," said Sbarra, associate professor and director of clinical training in the UA department of psychology.

Most people, about 85 percent, deal well over time with divorce or separation, Sbarra said.

But for some, divorce is the beginning or the continuation of a downward spiral that can adversely affect health and may even contribute to an early death.

Last year, Sbarra and colleagues at the University of Arizona performed a statistical review of 32 published studies that tracked divorced couples for an average 11 years after the break-up. They found a 23 percent increased risk of early death among the 6.5 million participants.

Such correlations don't definitively point to divorce as the cause, Sbarra cautioned, but the numbers are far too dramatic to ignore.

Sbarra, who studies the impacts of separation on health, learned from that meta-analysis that many areas need further study - including the issue he explored in the study published this month by the journal Psychological Science.

In the study of 38 men and 67 women, results of which have been peer-reviewed, self-compassion stood out as an effective strategy.

Participants in the study had been maritally separated for an average of 3.8 months from relationships that averaged 13.5 years, at the beginning of the study.

Those who were judged to be high in self-compassion by "readers" who listened to their free-form thoughts about their break-ups scored lower on a standardized measure of the negative impact of the event.

"People high in self-compassion may feel the pain of marital separation, but they avoid ruminating about their negative mental states, punishing themselves for real or perceived transgressions, and wallowing in their isolation and loneliness," the study said.

Self-compassion is teachable, Sbarra said, and may play an important role in helping people recover from divorce.

Most divorced people are resilient, he said, but the 10 to 15 percent who are not represent a large population at risk of serious mental and physical health problems.

About 2 million Americans divorce each year, he said.

The self-compassion study is not definitive, Sbarra said, and he hopes to get at the issue more fully in a study he will conduct this year with two colleagues at the UA, using a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The Tucson Area Divorce Study will zero in on the specific health effects of divorce, such as disruption in sleep patterns, and will also enable Sbarra to more fully explore strategies for dealing with divorce.

Participants will wear a watchlike device that records their movements during sleep and an EAR, or electronically activated recorder, that will randomly record portions of their days.

Richard Bootzin, a UA professor of psychology and noted sleep researcher, will lead the study. The third member of the team is Mathias Mehl, an associate professor of psychology, who is also a co-author of the self-compassion study, along with Hillary L. Smith.

find out more

The Tucson Area Divorce Study is seeking participants. Learn more by calling 792-6420 or go to http://research.sbs.arizona.edu/~sbarra/DSE%20Flyer.pdf

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.