Pay it forward - killing social anxiety with kindness
Did your mum ever tell you to 'treat others the way you'd want to be treated'? It's a pretty good blueprint for happiness, but it turns out that doing this could also help sufferers of social anxiety - not to mention you'll make new friends along the way! A study published in the Motivation and Emotion journal (1) revealed that kindness to others could lower levels of social anxiety. But how?
What is social anxiety?
Also referred to as social phobia, individuals who suffer from social anxiety feel fear and distress when faced with social situations - for some people, this could be a specific fear, such as the fear of standing in queues or being in busy places. Others may feel anxious in any social situation. particularly if they are somewhere unfamiliar. If you have social anxiety, it's no laughing matter. Avoidant behaviour is common, which could mean turning down social invitations and avoiding going to work, school or university. As you can imagine, this has a serious impact on the lives of sufferers.
If your social anxiety is making you feel like a hermit, you're not alone. The socially anxious generally have fewer friends and less satisfying social lives, lower professional and educational achievements and a difficulty with emotional intimacy in their close relationships. You don't need a clinical diagnosis from your GP either - even those suffering from low levels of social anxiety could experience serious disruption to their lives.
The study looked at the effects of engaging in acts of kindness on a group of young undergraduates suffering from moderate to high levels of social anxiety. The study participants were divided into two test groups and a control group, and studied over a 4 week period. During this time, the first group were assigned acts of kindness to carry out - tasks or deeds which made other people happy, such as mowing a neighbour's lawn or doing dishes for a friend. The second group was tasked in engaging with people in ways that they would normally avoid, such as speaking to strangers, asking someone out to lunch etc. This group were also taught breathing and relaxation techniques to help lower their anxiety.
The study revealed that the group performing tasks for others experienced the biggest changes to their anxiety levels. Not only did they see their levels of social anxiety reduce, they were then also less likely to avoid social situations, leading to increased levels of happiness and life satisfaction! Helping other people reduced feelings of fear over potential rejection and the more people they helped, the more confident they became. It's thought that performing acts of kindness could help those with social anxiety to engage more with others and to lead more satisfying lives.
How you can get on board
Wondering how you can get on board and start performing acts of kindness to make the world a better place (and lower your social anxiety levels to boot?) Here are a few ideas to get you started - there are plenty more!
- Try volunteering at an animal shelter, homeless shelter or soup kitchen. Spending time helping those less fortunate than ourselves helps us to practice gratitude, which Buddhists believe is essential for happiness. Plus, all that social interaction will help you to feel less anxious!
- Help an elderly person in your neighbourhood - perhaps do a weekly shop for them or help them with tasks around the house like cooking or cleaning, or even just spend some time keeping them company. For old people who live alone and don't have family nearby, loneliness can be a serious problem that could even affect their health
- Combine your acts of kindness with social events - treat a friend to a surprise ticket to their favourite show or throw a party for a relative's birthday
- Give your time to a cause in your area - anything from designing banners for a protest or event to helping out in a community garden project. Not only will this boost your confidence, it will also help you to meet new people locally!
Get some help
If your social anxiety is seriously impacting your life, we always recommend you see your GP for help. They can recommend counselling or talking therapies which can help you find ways to manage your anxiety levels, and in some cases anti-anxiety medicine may even be appropriate. Relaxation and breathing techniques such as meditation can help you to unwind and feel more in control of your anxiety, as can practising positive thinking and being more aware of negative voices which could knock your confidence and lead to avoidant behaviour. We all get anxious up to a point, but if social anxiety is affecting your happiness, it's time to take action!
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