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Acts of kindness can help relieve depression

Being socially connected is vital to human wellbeing but this aspect of human functioning is often impaired in people who suffer the symptoms of depression or anxiety. They may feel withdrawn and tired, unable to find the energy or drive to interact with people. Many patients with depression tend to withdraw from social contact and would rather stay at home, or in bed, than face society. 

A new study by researchers from Ohio State University has revealed that when depressed or anxious people perform acts of kindness towards others, the symptoms of their mental illness become less severe and they are able to heal themselves to a certain extent.  

“Social connection is one of the ingredients of life most strongly associated with wellbeing. Performing acts of kindness seems to be one of the best ways to promote those connections,” said David Cregg, who led the research as part of his PhD dissertation.

Cregg and his colleague Professor Jennifer Cheavens tested their acts of kindness technique in an experiment involving 122 people from central Ohio who had moderate to severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. 

After an initial introductory session, the participants were randomly allocated to one of three different groups.  Two of the groups received interventions that are commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treatments for depression. The first group was instructed to plan social activities for two days a week, and the members of the second group had to keep records, for at least two days a week, that helped them identify negative thought patterns and revise their way of thinking in order to reduce depression and anxiety (a form of cognitive reappraisal). 

The participants in the third group were instructed to perform three acts of kindness a day, for two days out of each week. Acts of kindness were defined as “big or small acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to you in terms of time or resources.” Examples of kind acts that participants performed included baking cookies for friends, offering to give a friend a ride, and leaving sticky notes with worlds of encouragement in places where s roommate would find them.

All three interventions continued for a period of five weeks. Participants were evaluated after week five, and then again after a further five weeks, to see whether the interventions were successful at reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The researchers’ findings, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, showed that helping others is a powerful technique for healing oneself.  Although participants in all three groups showed an increase in sense of life satisfaction, and a reduction in depression and anxiety symptoms after the 10 weeks of the study, those participants in the acts of kindness group showed the greatest improvements.

“These results are encouraging because they suggest that all three study interventions are effective at reducing distress and improving satisfaction,” Cregg said. “But acts of kindness still showed an advantage over both social activities and cognitive reappraisal, by making people feel more connected to other people, which is an important part of well-being.”

Cheavens noted that just taking part in social activities did not improve feelings of social connection in this study. In addition, the process of cognitive reappraisal also does not involve increasing social connectedness in any way.  

“There’s something specific about performing acts of kindness that makes people feel connected to others. It’s not enough to just be around other people, participating in social activities,” she said.

The researchers also discovered why performing acts of kindness worked so well to improve the symptoms of people with depression or anxiety. It helped distract participants from their own suffering while they were reaching out to help and consider others. 

“Doing nice things for people and focusing on the needs of others may actually help people with depression and anxiety feel better about themselves,” explained Cheavens.

“We often think that people with depression have enough to deal with, so we don’t want to burden them by asking them to help others. But these results run counter to that,” she said.

Cregg said that, while this study used techniques of CBT, it is not the same experience as going through a complete CBT treatment. Those who undergo the full treatment may have better results than those in this study. However, the findings do show that even the limited CBT exposure given in this study can be helpful to people with depression or anxiety. 

“Not everyone who could benefit from psychotherapy has the opportunity to get that treatment,” she said. “But we found that a relatively simple, one-time training had real effects on reducing depression and anxiety symptoms.”

And even those who are able to get CBT treatment may benefit even more if they are encouraged to carry out acts of kindness towards others on a regular and ongoing basis. This study shows that helping others has a healing effect through creating vital social connections.

“Something as simple as helping other people can go above and beyond other treatments in helping heal people with depression and anxiety,” concluded Cregg.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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