Could Loneliness Be the Cause of Your Anxiety?

Many of us have read about or witnessed the rise in depression and anxiety in our own lives in recent years. And many of us have asked ourselves, “Why is this happening?” and “What can we do to stop it?”

While the stigma surrounding mental health has eased during the pandemic and more people than ever are seeking treatment, we also need to be able to better understand and recognize mental health issues in ourselves and our loved ones and how to manage them be able . Whether it’s through daily wellness improvements or seeking professional help, the more conscious we are of the triggers and signs, the better we can take care of ourselves and those around us.

By way of introduction, since this is my first column for psychology today, I became a psychologist almost 20 years ago, specializing in the mental and behavioral health of children and adolescents. After years in healthcare systems delivering and guiding other mental health providers, I joined SonderMind, a mental and behavioral health provider focused on improving mental health access, use and outcomes, as the first Chief Medical Officer. As I have studied the field of mental health and spoken to thousands of patients throughout my career, I have developed a particular interest in the concept of loneliness and its impact on mental health, particularly anxiety and depression.

We are social beings. Our brains have evolved over thousands of years to interact with other people. Recognizing emotions, faces and their expressions, voices, language and intonation makes up a significant part of our brain. We are hardwired to encourage prosocial interactions.

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As hard as it is to feel lonely, it is actually protective.

The loneliness of our ancestors drove them to congregate and work together in groups. Hunting, guarding, working and sleeping together enabled our species to survive and reproduce. Throughout our history, prosocial sentiments fostered community and fueled civilization, culture, and invention. Through social connectedness and reduced isolation, we became the dominant animal on this planet and developed new ways of communicating and interacting. So much so that our inventions have led to surrogate ways to interact with each other. The internet and social media have both accelerated connectedness, causing many to feel more isolated and lonely — a phenomenon I’ll explore in future columns.

Let’s take this basic understanding of loneliness and apply it to the past few years that everyone around the world has just experienced, we’ve all felt lonely in one way or another. This loss of community is one of the things that I think contributes to the increase in anxiety you may feel yourself or see in a loved one. In fact, according to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO), in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25 percent.

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Common forms of anxiety I hear about in my community are:

  • Fear of rejoining society or leaving the house
  • Fear of large crowds
  • fear of travel
  • Fear of going back to work or school in person
  • Fear of not seeing (or not seeing) loved ones

While we all need some level of anxiety in our lives to function properly and thrive, the “Three Aces of Fear” are a helpful way to identify a potential problem if you think your anxiety is elevated:

1. Avoidance

The longer we are away from school, work, or activities, the greater avoidance behavior can become. This can be in social interactions or in public spaces.

2. Ambivalence

We as humans find it difficult to make decisions as it is. When we are stressed or anxious, we can overthink. This can lead to “analysis paralysis” which can lead to poor decision making and ineffective learning.

3. Anticipation

It’s the constant “what if” and “what if…?” Anticipating a stressful event is often more stressful than the event itself. This is especially true when there are so many unknowns. Changes in our lives, going back to school, heading to a new job, and stepping out into a crowded area for the first time can create anxiety even under the best of circumstances.

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So what should we do about loneliness and anxiety when we see it in a loved one or experience it ourselves?

I was heartened to see that last month the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended that adults under the age of 65 be screened for anxiety. This comes on top of their recent recommendation that all children aged 8 to 18 be screened for anxiety at their regular primary care appointments. Not only does this reduce the stigma of mental health, but the sooner we are able to identify a problem and get that person into quality care, the better outcomes we will see.

If you’re feeling anxious or lonely, I recommend you see your GP or see a therapist. The data we have at SonderMind shows that people who start therapy often feel better within six weeks or less. Talk therapy can be very beneficial as a therapist can help you find the right ways to deal with your anxiety and loneliness. For some, therapy combined with medication can be an effective option and should be considered as part of an individualized treatment plan. If you see signs of loneliness or anxiety in yourself or a loved one, seeking professional help is an important first step. You’re not the only one dealing with these very common — and highly treatable — mental illnesses.

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