The Surprising Antidote to Anxiety and Depression

The Bible says it's more blessed to give than receive, which we've always tended to interpret as a biblical instruction to serve others. However, there may be another way to look at it. Imagine that it could also be great advice from our creator who knows us better than we know ourselves.

While helping others is part of our ministry as people of faith, the truth is that putting someone else’s needs before our own (altruism) also benefits our own mental health and wellbeing.

This is particularly significant at a time when we’re seeing high rates of depression and anxiety amongst children and teens. Research shows that when someone uses their body and mind in new ways (i.e. the physical act of helping someone) it sparks a process of change in their brain chemistry. This is particularly beneficial for a child in psychological distress. The pleasure and reward centres of the brain light up and their mind becomes more focussed. Kids who literally haven’t been able to think about anything but their fears and/or sadness, start to experience what Psychology Today calls a ‘helper’s high’. 

Mental Health Foundation, United Kingdom breaks it down like this: 

  1. Helping others feels good. When you help others, it promotes positive physiological changes in the brain associated with happiness. These rushes are often followed by longer periods of calm and can eventually lead to better wellbeing. Helping others improves social support, encourages us to lead a more physically active lifestyle, distracts us from our own problems, allows us to engage in a meaningful activity and improves our self-esteem and competence.
  2. It brings a sense of belonging and reduces isolation. Being a part of a social network leads to a feeling of belonging.
  3. It helps to keep things in perspective. Many people don’t realise the impact that a different perspective can have on their outlook on life. Helping others in need, especially those who are less fortunate than yourself, can provide a real sense of perspective and make you realise how lucky you are, allowing you to focus less on what you feel you are missing.
  4. It helps make the world a happier place – it’s contagious! Acts of kindness have the potential to make the world a happier place. An act of kindness can improve confidence, control, happiness and optimism. It can also encourage others to repeat the good deed that they’ve experienced themselves – it contributes to a more positive community.
  5. The more you do for others, the more you do for yourself. Evidence shows that the benefits of helping others can last long after the act itself by providing a ‘kindness bank’ of memories that can be drawn upon in the future.

Creating Community: the key to wellbeing 

The African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” comes from the idea that an entire community of people must interact with children for them to grow in a safe and healthy environment. This is difficult in a society where we often experience community at arms-length. 

Brisbane Adventist College student counsellor Stefanie De Campo says that the way we experience society is individual rather than community based. 

“We keep our needs private, feel ashamed when we’re feeling depressed or anxious, and try to always put on a brave face to the outside world. The way we adults handle our problems sends a message to kids about how they should handle their own – and they just can’t do it on their own.

“Being more involved in community requires us to consciously step away from this individualism and move back towards a village mentality – where we all look out for each other. When schools and families make a conscious effort to do this, it’s contagious and the Bystander Effect comes into play. More and more people doing it makes more and more people get involved, and more and more people feel good about being involved. We end up with a more loving, positive community and the practice of helping others becomes the new norm.”

Motivating the depressed or anxious child 

Ms De Campo says that when the habit to avoid interaction and situations where they might feel more anxiety has already been established, children need a circuit-breaker. Finding opportunities for them to help others in non-threatening environments is a great start: cooking a meal together for another family who is going through a hard time, mowing a neighbour’s lawn, making someone a cup of tea are all great first steps. 

“It’s like starting an exercise program. Getting out of bed and putting on the gym clothes is the biggest hurdle. The rest follows more naturally. If we develop a culture in our homes and schools where we are all doing altruistic acts, it catches on….” 

Ten great ways to break the ice and help kids help others & themselves 

Who would have thought that being kind is a blessing that benefits everyone? This small, often-underrated behaviour biblically and scientifically stacks up as a way to change lives.   

Try some of the following ways to help kids live a happier and more joyful life. Encourage them to think about: 

  1. Giving away their pre-loved clothes
  2. Being the friendly face, cheering up others who are feeling sad
  3. Pledging their birthday – instead of receiving gifts this year, ask family to contribute to their favourite cause
  4. Sharing the messages of their favourite charity on their favourite social media platform
  5. Doing a First Aid course and learning how to save a life
  6. Volunteering to help the younger kids at the next school carnival or taking an active role in a fundraiser
  7. Preparing a nice surprise for all of their classmates, not just their best friends
  8. Giving to a cause close to their hearts
  9. Always being kind online
  10. Getting actively involved in College volunteer programs: from BAC’s campus and class-based charities and kindness activities to Sonship and STORMCo

Authors: Stefanie De Campo and Debbie Cosier