How small acts of kindness can help with anxiety

Depression and anxiety are rampant these days, especially among young people. Those who suffer from it may find their work, physical health, and general sense of well-being compromised.


Fortunately, there are some effective treatments for depression and anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT often involves learning how to identify and challenge negative thought patterns and add more fun and positive activities into your life, among other techniques. But, while CBT helps many people have less anxiety and depression, it may not have much effect on their sense of social connectedness, a central part of a happy and healthy life.

Now, a new study suggests there may be one good way to reap all those benefits when you\’re feeling depressed or anxious: Do random acts of kindness.

Five weeks of kindness



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In this study, participants with average levels of depressive or anxious symptoms (on average) were randomly assigned to do one of three things over the course of five weeks:

  • Perform three random acts of kindness on two days of the week. These have been defined as acts large or small that benefit others or make them happy, typically at some cost to yourself in terms of time or resources. People ended up doing acts of kindness for both people they knew and strangers, like buying coffee for a stranger in line at Starbucks, baking cookies for friends, and offering to shovel snow from a neighbor\’s driveway.
  • Schedule a social activity on two days of the week. These have been defined as activities big or small that you intentionally plan with other people for the purpose of having fun.
  • Complete a thought log for at least two days a week. Thought logs involve using a workbook to identify distressing or distorted thoughts and learning how to challenge those thoughts to make them less of a problem (a CBT technique called cognitive reevaluation).

Before the experiment began, each week during and five weeks after it ended, participants reported on their depression, anxiety, and stress; their sense of social support; their positive and negative feelings; their satisfaction with life; and their degree of self-centeredness, how self-focused they were in private, and how aware they were of what others thought of them in public.

The results showed that after the experiment, all three groups of people were less depressed and anxious, had fewer negative feelings, and felt more satisfied with life. But the group who practiced random acts of kindness had greater reductions in depression and anxiety and greater life satisfaction. And, while acts of kindness and social activities both improved people\’s sense of social support, the practice of kindness improved it even more, with benefits lasting up to five weeks.

Co-author Jennifer Cheavens of Ohio State University says she was surprised by the results, somewhat.

We thought, if there was an advantage of one group over another, it might be the thought recording group, since it is such a tried and tested way of dealing with depression [and anxiety] symptoms, he says. But the kindness group did as well or better, and that group also had an increase in social connectedness that didn\’t occur in the other two groups.

How kindness helps us

Why Do Kind Acts Help With Mental Health Symptoms? Not sure, Cheavens says. But in the study, they found that being nice to others made people less self-aware in public settings, which, in turn, was linked to less depression and anxiety.

When people engaged in doing things for other people, these prosocial behaviors seemed to dilute that self-focus we all get sometimes when we\’re in social situations, she says.

Although practicing kindness and recording thoughts both increased people\’s positive feelings over time, performing acts of kind had greater benefits initially (which decreased), while the opposite was true for recording thoughts, feelings positives decreased at first, then improved over time. This may explain why fewer people gave up the kindness activity than recorded thoughts, Cheavens says.

It doesn\’t take long to learn to do something kind for others, but it does take time to learn to think about your thoughts differently and evaluate the evidence of your negative thoughts, she says.

However, it seems that it might be difficult to get depressed and anxious people to add random acts of kindness to their lives. After all, they\’re already feeling overwhelmed and may have a hard time motivating themselves to do more. Cheavens says he wondered the same thing before the experiment took place. But, as it turned out, that wasn\’t a problem.

I was surprised it wasn\’t a particularly hard sell. People in the acts of kindness group had better understanding in some ways than people in other groups, she says.

Treat depression and anxiety

Given her findings, Cheavens is interested in seeing if kinder acts would be even more helpful. In future studies, she would like to work with people with more severe depression and anxiety and see if the kind of kind acts or beneficiaries are important in relieving symptoms.

However, it\’s important to note that he\’s not just suggesting prescribing acts of kind to people with depression and anxiety, nor is he saying that CBT should be dropped as the preferred treatment for them. A recording of thoughts is not the same as engaging in CBT with a licensed therapist, and the therapy has a long history of effectiveness.

But the study suggests that people in care may get some additional benefits from performing random acts of kindness. If that helps people improve social connections while also helping with their symptoms, it\’s practically a win-win for everyone to consider kind acts as an adjunct to therapy, says Cheavens.

And, for those of us who may sometimes suffer from anxiety or less severe depressive thoughts, it might be a good idea to get out of your head and focus your attention on others. Not only can being nice help your mood, but it can make you feel closer and more connected to people, something we could use more in society, in general.

The Surgeon General spoke about the importance of belonging and social connection with other people and acts of kindness. . . it might be a little less vulnerable than other ways we put ourselves out there, he says. I know that when I\’m feeling a little cranky or burnt out, doing things for other people is often a strategy for me.

#small #acts #kindness #anxiety

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