People who suffer from social anxiety are not merely shy. Being around others doesn’t make them just a little nervous – it can cause such overwhelming discomfort and stress that they avoid social experiences and situations entirely, even though they may want to be around people and develop relationships.
Although avoiding social situations protects the socially anxious from angst and possible embarrassment, they lose out on the support and intimacy gained from having relationships with others. They have fewer friends, feel insecure when interacting with others, and often do not experience emotional intimacy even in close relationships.
So how can a sufferer of social anxiety break the cycle of wanting and needing interaction but being too afraid to pursue it?
In a study published in Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion, Canadian researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia found that keeping busy with acts of kindness can help people who suffer from social anxiety to mingle more easily:
A greater overall reduction in patients’ desire to avoid social situations was found among the group who actively lent a helping hand. This effect was most notable in the initial phase of the intervention. The findings therefore support the value of acts of kindness as an avoidance reduction strategy. It helps to counter feelings of possible rejection and temporary levels of anxiety and distress. It also does so faster than was the case for the participants who were merely exposed to social interactions without engaging in good deeds.
According to Trew and Alden, interventions involving acts of kindness may over time help socially anxious people lead more satisfying and engaging lives, and see changes in their disposition:
“Acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions and expectations of a person’s social environment,” explains Trew. “It helps to reduce their levels of social anxiety and, in turn, makes them less likely to want to avoid social situations.”
“An intervention using this technique may work especially well early on while participants anticipate positive reactions from others in response to their kindness,” adds Alden.