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
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: Kevin Gebardt