People with symptoms of depression or anxiety can help heal themselves by doing good deeds for others, according to new research.
The study found that performing acts of kindness led to unobserved improvements in two other therapeutic techniques used to treat depression or anxiety.
More importantly, the Acts of Kindness Technique was the only tested intervention that helped people feel more connected to others, said study co-author David Cregg, who led the work as part of his doctoral dissertation in psychology at Ohio State University.
“Social connection is one of the ingredients of life most strongly associated with well-being. Performing acts of kindness seems to be one of the best ways to foster those bonds,” Cregg said.
Cregg conducted the research with Ohio State psychology professor Jennifer Cheavens. Their study was recently published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.
The research also revealed why acts of kindness worked so well: it helped people stop thinking about their own symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The finding suggests that a hunch many people have about people with depression may be wrong, Cheavens said.
“We often think that people with depression have enough to deal with, so we don’t want to burden them with asking them to help others. But these results run counter to that,” she said.
“Doing nice things for people and focusing on the needs of others can actually help people with depression and anxiety feel better about themselves. »
The study involved 122 people from central Ohio who had moderate to severe symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.
After an introductory session, the participants were divided into three groups. Two of the groups were assigned to techniques often used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for depression: social activity planning or cognitive reassessment.
The social activities group was tasked with planning social activities two days a week. Another group was instructed in one of the basic elements of CBT: cognitive reappraisal. These participants kept records for at least two days a week, which helped them identify negative thought patterns and revise their thoughts in ways that reduced depression and anxiety.
Members of the third group were instructed to perform three acts of kindness a day for two days a week. Acts of kindness have been defined as “acts large or small that benefit others or make them happy, usually at some cost to you in terms of time or resources”.
Some of the acts of kindness attendees later said they did included baking cookies for friends, offering to give a friend a ride, and being able to leave sticky notes for roommates with nice words. ‘encouragement.
Participants followed their instructions for five weeks, after which they were assessed again. The researchers then checked with the participants after five more weeks to see if the interventions were still effective.
The results showed that participants in all three groups showed an increase in life satisfaction and a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety after the 10 weeks of the study.
“These results are encouraging as they suggest that all three study interventions are effective in reducing distress and improving satisfaction,” Cregg said.
“But acts of kindness have consistently shown a benefit on social activities and cognitive reappraisal by making people feel more connected to others, which is an important part of well-being,” he said.
Additionally, the acts of kindness group showed greater improvements than the cognitive reappraisal group for life satisfaction and symptoms of depression and anxiety, the results showed.
Cheavens noted that simply participating in social activities did not improve feelings of social connectedness in this study.
“There is something specific about doing acts of kindness that makes people feel connected to others. It’s not enough to just be around other people, to participate in social activities,” she said.
Cregg said that while this study used CBT techniques, it’s not the same experience as going through CBT. Those who undergo the full treatment may have better results than those in this study.
But the results also show that even the limited CBT exposure given in this study can be helpful, Cheavens said.
“Not everyone who could benefit from psychotherapy has the opportunity to get this treatment,” she said. “But we found that relatively simple one-off training had real effects in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. »
And beyond traditional CBT, acts of kindness can have additional benefits in building social connections, Cregg said.
“Something as simple as helping other people can go beyond other treatments to help heal people with depression and anxiety,” he said.
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