A new study shows that performing acts of kindness might have the added benefit of helping treat symptoms of social anxiety.
Committing an act of kindness can be rewarding, but did you know it might also help reduce social anxiety?
That's what two Canadian researchers have found in a study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion. Researchers Jennifer Trew and Lynn Alden looked at some of the underlying factors of people living with social anxiety disorder and found an interesting pattern in behavior.
People suffering from social anxiety disorder — which is defined by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) as "extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations" — frequently take steps to avoid socializing. In the study, Trew and Alden examined those steps to see what kind of effect they had on actually reducing the symptoms of social anxiety.
In other words, they decided to test what would happen if they disrupted the pattern of withdrawing from social situations and make people with social anxiety face their fears.
The study's 115 participants — made up of undergraduate students living with social anxiety disorder — were split into three separate groups.
The first group was asked to perform acts of kindness, such as mowing their neighbor's lawn, donating to charity, or doing their roommate's dishes.
The second group was exposed to social situations but wasn't made to directly interact or perform specific acts.
The third group was asked to simply keep notes of what they did each day. This was the study's control group.
In the U.S. alone, it's estimated that around 15 million people live with social anxiety disorder.
Sometimes called "social phobia," social anxiety disorder is far more than simple shyness. Instead, it's a condition that can, as the ADAA says, "wreak havoc on the lives of those who suffer from it," disrupting their everyday lives.
As is the case with other forms of anxiety, treatment for social anxiety disorder is highly individualized.
Most people who seek treatment for social anxiety disorder find some improvement through therapy or medication (or a combination of the two).
The results of the study suggest that performing acts of kindness could be another tool in the anxiety-fighting toolbox.
The study found that those who were placed into the first group (the ones who performed acts of kindness) saw the largest decrease in avoidance actions. Those in the second group experienced some decrease, but not as fast nor as drastically. As a result of the decrease in avoidance actions, participants saw their overall anxiety symptoms improve as well.
"Acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions and expectations of a person's social environment," says Trew. "It helps to reduce their levels of social anxiety and, in turn, makes them less likely to want to avoid social situations."
Comedian John Mulaney even tells a joke about the oh-so-good feeling that comes with avoidance actions. Unfortunately, for those with social anxiety disorder, avoiding social interactions might be making their anxiety worse as a result — and that's what makes this study a success.
Does this mean standard treatments for social anxiety disorder will be shelved in favor of some community service in the near future? Not a chance.
But understanding how deliberate behaviors can affect symptoms of anxiety is useful in coming up with new and effective forms of treatment moving forward, and these types of exercise can be helpful additions to other treatment methods.
"An intervention using this technique may work especially well early on while participants anticipate positive reactions from others in response to their kindness," Alden adds in the study's description.