The power of kindness in tackling social anxiety
This article is partially reproduced from: http://www.bulletproofmusician.com/thinking-of-your-performance-as-a-gift-does-this-really-work/, a blog that I really enjoy reading, that focusses on the science of learning and performance for musicians. While the main focus of this article is about musical performance, it details some interesting scientific findings about the power of kindness in overcoming social anxiety, and this excerpt is about that. To me, it's illustration of the power of love.
In a recent study, a pair of Canadian researchers recruited 122 socially anxious participants to test out different strategies for reducing their anxiety and avoidance of social situations.
One group – the acts of kindness group – was asked to engage in 3 acts of kindness per day, twice per week, over a 4-week period. Acts of kindness were defined as “acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to oneself,” and involved things like doing their roommate’s dishes, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, or making a donation to charity.
A second group – the exposure group – were instructed to put themselves in social situations they’d usually try to avoid, and to stay there until their anxiety eased up a bit. They too were asked to engage in 3 social engagements, twice per week, over a 4-week period. To help them better cope with their anxiety in social situations, they were taught a deep breathing strategy which had been shown to be helpful for reducing anxiety. Their social activities included things like asking a stranger for the time, talking with a neighbor, or asking someone out to lunch.
A third group served as the control group. They were simply asked to record 3 daily events, twice per week, over a 4-week period – things like attending class, cooking, or shopping.
Acts of kindness vs. exposure
The researchers were curious to see how these strategies would affect two aspects of the participants’ social anxiety – 1) the anxiety itself, and 2) how strongly they would be motivated to avoid social situations that stressed them out (“social avoidance goals”).
Regarding social anxiety, both the acts of kindness group and the exposure group experienced reductions in social anxiety, when compared to the control group.
They also experienced a drop in social avoidance goals, compared with the control group.
However, the acts of kindness strategy led to greater and faster reductions in social avoidance goals as compared with the exposure folks.
So all in all, it seems that folks who engaged in acts of kindness not only experienced a drop in their anxiety, but in how resistant they were to participating in social situations.
Hmm…why might that be?
Why do acts of kindness help?
It’s a bit paradoxical, but socially anxious individuals are more likely to experience negative social interactions, because they have a tendency to engage in “safety behaviors” that actually make their interactions worse. Like inexplicably talking fast (or softly, or both) in a meeting. Or avoiding eye contact. Or coming up with excuses to get out of a social situation. All of which is intended to make things better – but clearly don’t.
Acts of kindness shift our focus away from trying to protect ourselves, and onto an effort to make someone else’s life better. Which can put our mind in a more productive place, where we’re less fearful and more prone to approaching it as a challenge, rather than a threat.
Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.