Social anxiety disorder (or SAD), more commonly known as social phobia, is a common condition. 

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, SAD, which affects 15 million American adults, is defined as "intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” (I could’ve told you that definition myself from personal experience).

The two common, or traditional, treatments for SAD are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication. 

Both are effective and decrease social anxiety symptoms. But the vast majority of people with SAD either don’t seek treatment or don’t respond to the treatment when they actually do go. 

As is the case in many situations, seeking treatment can be expensive. (I paid  $225 per session to see my psychologist). 

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Others might not be comfortable talking to someone they barely know about their life. Or they avoid seeking mental health due to the perceived stigma attached to it. And a portion of those individuals who do seek treatment doesn't get the desired outcome. Naturally, other options are needed.

Other Options

Then there are so-called nontraditional treatments. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is one such treatment. The other is aerobic exercise or cardio. 

MBSR is about bringing attention to the present moment and not automatically judging feelings and emotions. This also reduces some anxiety symptoms, but it’s not as effective as CBT for SAD, specifically.

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A number of studies have shown cardio as being effective for anxiety. But SAD is a specific type of anxiety disorder, and no study (until 2012) has looked at the effects of cardio training in SAD. 

So a group of researchers from Stanford University performed a study to see if there is a difference between MBSR versus cardio training on symptoms and well-being in adults with SAD. 

The researchers took 56 participants and randomly assigned them to either MBSR or AE. In addition, they had a control group of 29 people who were not receiving any sort of treatment.

During the eight-week study the subjects in the MBSR group had to attend weekly two-and-a-half-hour group classes, a one-day meditation retreat, and daily home practice. The AE group got a two-month gym membership, had to do two AE workouts per week at a moderate intensity, and one group AE workout (other than meditation or yoga) each week. 

The results of the study are below. (This is the best quality screenshot I could take) 

Jazaieri, H., Goldin, P. R., Werner, K., Ziv, M., & Gross, J. J. (2012). A randomized trial of MBSR versus aerobic exercise for social anxiety disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68(7), 715-731.

Jazaieri, H., Goldin, P. R., Werner, K., Ziv, M., & Gross, J. J. (2012). A randomized trial of MBSR versus aerobic exercise for social anxiety disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychology68(7), 715-731.

The white bars show MBSR, the gray is AE, and the black bar is the untreated SAD group

The top row of charts from the left: Social Anxiety, Social Interaction Anxiety, Self Esteem, Satisfaction with Life.

The bottom row of charts from left: Depression, perceived stress, Self Compassion, Social Integration.

Comparing the two interventions, both show significant changes in symptoms and well-being and the effect between the two was comparable across all measures. After running some fancy statistical math, the researchers found no difference between the two groups on any of the measures, both immediately after the study and three months after.

Being a student dealing with anxiety, myself, I know it’s quite the financial burden to regularly see a psychologist because you really have to attend sessions consistently to learn the skills to see the benefits. So it’s good to see that hard evidence of cardio (something I have already started to regularly incorporate into my program) being just as effective as MBSR.

Exercise and mindfulness training are both cheap, easily accessible, and don’t involve sitting across from a Therapug.

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