The Scientific Reason Why Showing Kindness Can Help Ease Anxiety
Looking for ways to manage your anxiety? Try an act of kindness.
During times of extreme stress and unknowns, it can be hard to know how to calm anxious thoughts. Especially if you’re self-quarantining due to COVID-19, you’ve probably found yourself reading a lot of breaking news and generally looking for ways to ease your mind.
To determine the best methods for curbing anxiety, Dignity Health conducted a study on travelers, since most people (82 percent of those surveyed) consider traveling to be stressful. It found an interesting way of reducing stress: being kind. In fact, the study found that over half of the people surveyed said helping another traveler increased their happiness after performing the act.
We spoke with Sara Whatley-Dustin, DO, a family medicine physician with Dignity Health, to find out what this study says about kindness as a form of anxiety relief in general, beyond the isolated stressors of travel, and how people can apply it to daily feelings of anxiety.
“When we’re kind to others—or others are kind to us—our bodies release serotonin, a chemical nerve produced by cells from the ‘pleasure center’ of our brain that contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness,” Whatley-Dustin says. “These acts can also produce oxytocin, which helps dilate blood vessels leading to increased blood flow.”
Part of the reason why these chemicals can create such noticeable differences during times of stress is related to the physical effects that stress can have on the body. Whatley-Dustin explains that stress can even lower the body’s immune system.
An even more uplifting finding from the survey? Kind gestures can come in truly small forms. “No matter how big or small a kind gesture might be, it can go a long way—especially if the other person is stressed or upset,” she explains. "Hence why 66 percent of the people we surveyed felt less stressed when an individual smiled at them.”
When you think of a kind gesture as something as simple as a smile, it becomes almost difficult to justify acting any other way. “I often pose the questions, ‘What am I putting out into the world?’ ‘Did I help make someone’s life better today?’” Says Whatley-Dustin. “We believe in the power of human connections, whether it helps a patient heal in our hospitals or puts a person at ease in their personal life.”
Whatley-Dustin says that she tries to remember this when she has a difficult patient or even a hard day. “Sometimes patients come in sick or have had a bad day, and I might be the only human contact that person has had that day,” says Whatley-Dustin. “So, even if people are not kind to me, I try to give everyone I come in contact with grace and positivity.”
While you may not be traveling any time soon, keep kindness in mind as you interact with friends over the phone or over FaceTime while you’re social distancing. With such heightened levels of uncertainty and anxiety pulsing through our country right now, there’s truly no time like the present.
“There’s something to be said about the fact that more than half of those people we surveyed felt better simply by being kind toward others, and it goes to show just how important it is to express human kindness, even in moments when we might feel stressed or pressed for time,” says Whatley-Dustin. “You never know how much you can improve one person’s day through kindness, and what that kind of ripple effect can have if that individual turns around and does the same.”