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You’re afraid to go out to social events, so you avoid them when you can. And when you do go out and try to mingle, you’re sorely unprepared for the pressures of making easy conversation, introducing yourself and other skills that come easily to many people. One bad experience and you’re ready to swear off parties and gatherings for good.
But how to break the cycle? According to new research out of Simon Fraser University, you might be able to work on your social chops by doing good deeds for others. Kindness, it turns out, may be a kind of training ground for the socially anxious.
In the study, published recently in the journal Motivation and Emotion, 115 undergraduate students who experience high levels of social anxiety (according to standardized psychological questionnaires) were recruited and divided into three groups, according to a press release.
The participants were divided into three groups, with each offered a plan for combatting their social anxiety.
The first was asked to engage in three acts of kindness a day on two days each week over four weeks. Examples of acts of kindness the participants undertook included doing a roommate’s dishes, mowing a neighbour’s lawn, and donating to a charity.
The second group was urged to expose themselves to social situations they would usually avoid and to stay until they felt their social anxiety had lowered—a proven method used to ease social anxiety. This “social exposure” group was also asked to engage in three interactions a day on two days each week over four weeks, along with breathing techniques.
The third group was told that anxious individuals often have difficulty paying attention to events that occur throughout the day and that recording daily events may help. They were asked to record events in the same frequency that the other two groups were recording their information. Examples they recorded included attending class, cooking, and shopping.
Researchers found that two of the three groups were successful. The group working on acts of kindness and the social exposure group both reduced their social anxiety; they were less likely to avoid social situations as the study went on. In the group working on kindness, however, the shift in attitudes came quicker to participants. They focused less on avoiding things such as looking foolish, or doing or saying something wrong that could lead others to see them negatively, than other participants did.
Co-author Jennifer Trew, a postdoctoral research fellow in Simon Fraser University’s Department of Psychology, suggests the acts of kindness not only nudge people toward interacting with others, they may cast a positive glow on the world around them.
"Acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions and expectations of a person's social environment," she said. "It helps to reduce their levels of social anxiety and helps them to focus less on avoiding social mishaps. This may improve social interactions and make them less likely to want to avoid social situations in the future."
Read on for how to help a loved one with social anxiety and how to help children with mental health issues.