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Anxiety

Could Loneliness Be the Cause of Your Anxiety?

Here's one reason why depression and anxiety might be on the rise.

Key points

  • In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25 percent.
  • A tool called the three A's of anxiety can help us identify potential issues.
  • The more aware we can be of triggers or signs of anxiety and loneliness, the better we will be able to take care of ourselves and loved ones.

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

While the stigma around mental health has decreased during the pandemic, and more people than ever are seeking treatment, at the same time, we need to be able to better understand and identify mental health concerns in ourselves and loved ones and know how to handle them. Whether this is through day-to-day wellness improvements or seeking professional help, the more aware we can be of triggers and signs, the better we will be able to 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 child and adolescent mental and behavioral health. After years in health systems delivering and leading other mental health providers, I joined SonderMind, a mental and behavioral health provider focused on improving mental health access, utilization, and outcomes, as its first Chief Medical Officer. As I’ve studied the field of mental health and talked to thousands of patients during my career, I have developed a particular interest in the concept of loneliness and its impact on mental health, specifically anxiety and depression.

We are social creatures. Our brains have developed over millennia to interact with other humans. Recognizing emotions, faces and their expressions, voices, speech, and intonation constitutes a significant portion of our brains. We are hardwired to promote prosocial interactions.

As hard as it is to feel lonely, it is, in fact, protective.

Loneliness in our ancestors drove them to congregate and collaborate in groups. To collectively hunt, guard, work, and sleep enabled our species to survive and procreate. Throughout our history, prosocial feelings promoted community and fostered civilization, culture, and invention. Through social connectedness and decreased isolation, we became the dominant animal on this planet and developed new ways to communicate and interact. So much so that our inventions have led to surrogate ways to interact with one another. The internet and social media have both accelerated connectedness and driven many to feel more isolated and lonely—a phenomenon I will discuss in future columns.

Taking that basic understanding of loneliness and applying it to the past few years that everyone around the world just experienced, we have all felt lonely in one way or another. That loss of community is one of the things I see contributing to the rise in anxiety, which 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.

Common forms of anxiety that I hear about from my community include:

  • Anxiety about reentering society or leaving the house
  • Anxiety about big crowds
  • Anxiety about travel
  • Anxiety about going back to work or school in person
  • Anxiety about not seeing loved ones (or seeing them)

While we all need some level of anxiety in our lives to function properly and thrive, if you think your anxiety may be heightened, the “Three A’s of Anxiety” are a helpful way to identify a potential issue:

1. Avoidance

For some, the longer we are out of school, work, or activities, the greater avoidant behaviors can become. This can be when it comes to social interactions or being in any public space.

2. Ambivalence

We, as humans, have a hard time making decisions as it is. When we are stressed or anxious, we can overthink. This can lead to “analysis paralysis,” which can result in poor decision-making and ineffective learning.

3. Anticipation

These are the constant “what-ifs” and “what happens when...?” 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 going out in a crowded area for the first time can all be anxiety-provoking, even in the best of circumstances.

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

I was encouraged to see The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommend that adults under 65 years old get screened for anxiety last month. This is on top of their recent recommendation that all children aged 8 to 18 get screened for anxiety at their regular primary care appointments. Not only does this reduce the mental health stigma, but the sooner we are able to identify an issue and get that person into high-quality care, the better outcomes we’ll see.

If you’re feeling anxious or lonely, I recommend you get screened by your general practitioner or find a therapist. The data we have at SonderMind shows that people who enter therapy oftentimes feel better within six weeks or less. Talk therapy can be highly beneficial, as a therapist can help you find the right ways to manage your anxiety and loneliness. For some, therapy combined with medication can be a powerful option and should be considered as part of any personalized treatment plan. As you see signs of loneliness or anxiety in yourself or a loved one, an important first step is finding professional help. You are not alone in tackling these very common—and very treatable—mental health conditions.

References

World Health Organization. (2022). (publication). COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-….

United States Preventive Services Task Force. (2022, October 11). Anxiety in Children and Adolescents: Screening. Retrieved from https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation/scr…

United States Preventive Services Task Force. (2022, September 20). Screening for Anxiety in Adults. Retrieved from https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/draft-recommendati…

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