Socially anxious people are the least likely to reach out to others. In part it’s because they lack confidence but a bigger element is their concern over rejection. This is especially hard as we are hard-wired into socializing with others. A big concern with the socially anxious is that other people will have well established networks of friends and the circle will be closed to newcomers. In fact this is rarely the case. Sure, a few people may have grown up with a wide friendship group, but many others won’t. Circumstances change too. What happens when we leave home to change jobs, or relocate with a partner, or go to University?
Social anxiety is more than shyness. We’re talking about people who find interacting with others so anxiety provoking and threatening that they will actively seek ways to avoid contact. Despite this, the basic social skills and the emotional needs are still there. The barrier to be overcome is the social anxiety so the question is always what can be done to help?
Canadian researchers Jennifer Trew and Lynn Alden report that acts of kindness can help reduce social avoidance and helps socially anxious people relax. Their study, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, reports on a four-week study involving 115 students with high social anxiety. Students were randomly assigned to one of three conditions involving acts of kindness, or simple exposure to social situations, or the recording of everyday activities. Whilst exposure to social situations generally appeared to help in the desire to avoid future social situations, the greatest effect was seen in students who were asked to lend a hand.
Performing simple acts of kindness is well known to increase a sense of wellbeing and happiness. The act of holding out a charity collection box, or helping with the washing up, or volunteering to help with the cleaning or serving out of meals gives a focus that helps to displace anxiety. In short, it becomes easier to interact with others if there’s something to do. It becomes a compromise in which social interaction is just a part of what’s going on and therefore becomes less intense. The judgments of others, a typical fear in the socially anxious, are also more likely to be positive.
The researchers in this study argue that acts of kindness ‘may help counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions and expectations.’
Jennifer L. Trew, Lynn E. Alden. Kindness reduces avoidance goals in socially anxious individuals. Motivation and Emotion, 2015; DOI:10.1007/s11031-015-9499-5
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.