Do you skip eating lunch with coworkers just because you think people will judge you every time you dig into a burger? Or do you always find a way to get out of family get-togethers for fear of everyone watching how you speak or even how you hold your wine glass?
You’re probably dealing with social anxiety — or, simply, a crippling fear of being judged by those around you. In fact, 15 million Americans feel the same way.
A new study says there might be an easy fix: just be kind to other people.
Researchers at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia
picked 115 undergraduate students with high levels of social anxiety, and divided them into three groups, each of which had to do a specific task for the next four weeks.
Those in the first group had to carry out three “acts of kindness” — like giving to charity, cooking dinner for friends, or mowing the neighbour’s lawn — for two days every week. Those in another group had to take part in social interaction three times for two days a week — while taking a deep breath every time they did it. The third simply had to record how they spent their day.
When asked about their desire to avoid social situations, those who had spent four weeks being nice to others reported the greatest improvement in anxiety levels of all three groups.
But why does mowing a neighbour’s lawn help people overcome anxiety?
Dr. Jennifer Trew, a psychologist at Simon Fraser University and one of the study’s authors,
explains: “A lot of times people with social anxiety focus a lot of their attention on how they’re coming across. Getting them to focus on doing something nice for others takes them out of their head and gets them to think about other people.”
Trew adds that it’s still too early to make doing good deeds a formal treatment for people suffering from social anxiety. But given the study’s results, she sees potential.
“It could be a nice feature to add to therapy for those clinically diagnosed with social anxiety disorder,” she says.
Science is far from figuring out the most definitive way to help calm those nerves. Until then, these findings offer hope.
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