Why Exercise and Relaxation Techniques Benefit The Socially Anxious

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Both exercise and relaxation techniques change the way we see the world.

In treating social anxiety — discomfort or fear in social situations, often of being judged — both relaxation techniques and exercise have been found beneficial (see: how to deal with anxiety).

New research from Queen’s University suggests this is because it changes the way people perceive the world (Heenan & Troje, 2014).

In the study, participants watched a point-light display of a human figure walking.

The figure walked in such a way that it’s difficult to tell whether it’s coming towards you or going away.

Socially anxious people, though, show a bias towards perceiving the figure as coming towards them, since this is more threatening.

Participants in this study were shown the walking figure sometimes after they’d performed a muscle relaxation technique, other times after some exercise and other times after standing still.

The study’s lead author, Adam Heenan, explained the results:

“We wanted to examine whether people would perceive their environment as less threatening after engaging in physical exercise or after doing a relaxation technique that is similar to the breathing exercises in yoga (called progressive muscle relaxation).

We found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes perceived these ambiguous figures as facing towards them (the observer) less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill.

The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation.

This is a big development because it helps to explain why exercising and relaxation techniques have been successful in treating and mood and anxiety disorders in the past.”

The study shows that both relaxation and exercise caused people to view their environments in different ways.

Afterwards, people are less likely to interpret neutral social signals as threatening — something that people with social anxiety have a tendency to do.

Read on: How to Deal With Stress and Anxiety: 10 Proven Psychological Techniques

Image credit: Kevin Gebardt

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 3 August 2014

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