For those who struggle with social anxiety, just the thought of getting out of the house and interacting with others can be a cause of stress. If this is you, recent research shows how you can take an active role to defeat your anxiety: Perform random acts of kindness.
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Yes, making a deliberate attempt to brighten another person’s day by doing something thoughtful, nice and caring can make you feel less nervous when you are in a group of people. The reason? It gets your mind off yourself.
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Making others happy
In the study, researchers from the University of British Columbia were interested in whether performing acts of kindness would reduce social anxiety. The study divided 146 participants, who had scored high on an assessment for social anxiety, into three groups.
One group was assigned to perform acts of kindness. These were defined as acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to oneself. Examples of acts of kindness included doing a roommate’s dishes, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, and donating to a charity. These participants were asked to engage in three acts of kindness a day on two days each week over four weeks.
Members of the second group were simply told to be more social with other people. This was to compensate for the possible reduction in social anxiety that could be attributed to increased interaction with other people. These participants were told to go into social situations that they would usually avoid and stay until their anxiety decreased.
The third group was the control group; members were merely asked to keep a diary of their social interactions. They were asked to record at least three events that occurred each day on two days each week over four weeks; the frequency matched the first group’s acts of kindness. Examples of life details recorded by participants included attending class, cooking and shopping.
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The researchers found that those who performed random acts of kindness experienced reduced social anxiety.
They theorized that acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by helping socially anxious people create more positive perceptions — and expectations — of their social environment. Other research has shown similar results, the study says.
By performing an act of kindness, the members of the first group were able to expect positive reactions from others, the study authors say. This decreased their need to avoid social interactions due to fear of a negative experience.
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Don’t sit around
The findings reaffirm what psychologist Joseph Rock, PsyD tells his patients who struggle with social anxiety — get out and don’t avoid other people. Dr. Rock did not participate in the research.
“Passivity and worry makes anxiety worse; doing anything makes it better,” Dr. Rock says. “So, if you’re out in public and just standing there, you’re going to be more anxious than if you’re doing something.”
When you decide not to do something you want to avoid, you are rewarding yourself and so run the risk of getting caught up in a cycle of avoidance, he says.
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Get out of your head
Dr. Rock says the key to overcoming social anxiety lies in your ability to focus on something other than your thoughts.
“We try to get people to pay attention to what is going on around them. If you don’t do that, you’re creating a false reality in your head that becomes your reality,” Dr. Rock says. “You’re imagining people are looking at you or they’re talking about you or what they’re thinking about you and you’re not really in touch with what’s actually going on.”
If you have anxiety, Dr. Rock says, make sure you can find a way to calm yourself before putting yourself into unfamiliar social situations. Doing so can help you avoid feeling awkward and becoming discouraged about future social interactions.
Complete results of the study can be found in the journal Motivation and Emotion.
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