On the subject of social anxiety, psychologists find more support for the age-old saying "kindness makes the world go 'round"
For the socially anxious among us, the solution might be simpler than you think. It all comes down to following your mom’s tried-and-true advice: Treat others the way you'd want to be treated. Because being kind to others can help reduce social anxiety, according to a new study published in Motivation and Emotion. (Science also shows fermented foods can help lower social anxiety).
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is defined by the mental health bible Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as "significant distress or impairment that interferes with his or her ordinary routine in social settings, at work or school, or during other everyday activities." And it has serious consequences—socially anxious individuals have lower educational and professional achievement, fewer friends, less satisfying social interactions, less emotional intimacy in close relationships, and general social disruption, the study authors explain. Social anxiety also leads to high avoidance motivation—or the desire to avoid social situations that might lead to a negative outcome, such as rejection.
And it's not just those who are clinically diagnosed who suffer. "Research shows that social anxiety falls along a continuum and that even lower levels of social anxiety can cause significant problems for people at work and in social relationships," says study author Jennifer Trew, Ph.D.
To find out whether engaging in acts of kindness could help, the study authors randomly assigned undergraduates with moderate to high levels of social anxiety to either a control group or one of two test groups. Over four weeks, the first group performed acts of kindness—deeds that benefitted others or made others happy, typically at some cost to the giver. Examples included doing a roommate's dishes, mowing a neighbor's lawn, and donating to a charity. The second group was instructed to engage in social interactions they would normally avoid, such as asking a stranger for the time, talking with a neighbor, or asking someone to lunch, and were also taught breathing techniques known to help lower anxiety (like these 3 Breathing Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety, Stress, and Low Energy).
The study authors found that the group who lent a helping hand experienced the biggest benefit. "It helps to reduce their levels of social anxiety and, in turn, makes them less likely to want to avoid social situations," explained Trew. The act of helping others also helped to counter feelings of potential rejection and reduce temporary levels of distress in the socially anxious students, she added. As a result, this may help socially anxious individuals lead more satisfying and engaging lives, she concluded.
Plus, someone gets their lawn mowed or their dishes washed—everybody wins!