Dr's Casebook: Performing acts of kindness may help with depression and anxiety

​​Anxiety and depression can both make life hard for many people. In this column I have discussed many of the things that have been found to help. Getting out in the fresh air and letting green spaces lift you is one. In the winter there is less green, but it is on its way as we advance towards spring.
Performing kindness acts may help both depression and anxiety. Photo: AdobeStockPerforming kindness acts may help both depression and anxiety. Photo: AdobeStock
Performing kindness acts may help both depression and anxiety. Photo: AdobeStock

Dr Keith Souter writes: Exercise is also proven to help. A paper from Japan showed that short moderate intensity runs for as little as ten minutes lift the mood and ease anxiety.

Yet not everyone is motivated or able to run. I was therefore very interested to see a paper just published in the Journal of Positive Psychology from Ohio State University, which showed that performing small acts of kindness may help considerably. The reasons why it can help are compelling. For one thing it is a positive thing you can do to promote social connection. Secondly, by thinking of others for the time you do it makes one minimise the internal feelings that cause the problems. Thirdly, it seems to help one to feel better about themselves, which is good because self-image is often one of the problems people face when depressed or anxious. Lastly, the effect of doing it stays with one at the unconscious level for far longer than the actual act.

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In the study over a 120 people with moderate to severe depression, anxiety and stress were recruited. After an introduction they were split in three groups. Two of the groups were given cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques. The first of these two groups was asked to plan social activities for two days a week. The second group were asked to keep records for two days a week, as this would help to identify negative thoughts. Both of these techniques are known to help.

The third group were asked to perform three acts of kindness a day for two days every week. These could be big or small acts that help others and which may take up some time on the part of the giver.

Over a ten week period all three groups experienced less depression and anxiety, but the greatest reduction was in the kindness-giving group. A simple and effective strategy that costs little.

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