Life is rough for the socially anxious. Research suggests that people who struggle with social anxiety aren’t as successful at school or work as their non-socially anxious peers, and they also (not surprisingly) tend to have fewer friends. But there may be a simple way for people to tamp down some of those debilitating nerves: Just be nice.
More specifically, social psychologists at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University recently found that when socially anxious people were encouraged to perform little acts of kindness — doing a roommate’s dishes, mowing a neighbor’s lawn — they reported less daily social anxiety one month after starting the little experiment in niceness, when compared to others who did not undertake the doing-good-deeds assignment.
Jennifer L. Trew and Lynn E. Alden split 115 undergraduates into three groups: one that would seek out ways to be kind to others; another that would confront their social anxiety by doing the very things that made them nervous (like striking up a conversation with their neighbor, or asking someone to join them for lunch), in a kind of exposure therapy; and a final group that served as the control condition, who were told to keep a record of their daily lives for one month.
Before and after the four-week experiment, all the study participants took tests that measured their levels of daily social anxiety, and their reported level of “avoidance goals” — that is, how strongly they were motivated to steer clear of the social situations that stressed them out. In the end, the people who had focused on kindness for the month experienced the biggest drops in social anxiety, when compared to the exposure group and the control group; the kindness group also reported bigger drops in avoidance after the duration of the experiment.
Previous research has indicated that there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between self-focused attention and social anxiety, in that anxiety makes people more likely to draw their focus inward — likewise, focusing on yourself seems to increase anxiety. This new finding may point to a way out of that vicious, anxious circle. Doing small good deeds for other people naturally turns your focus outward, which may leave less room for obsessive self-reflection.