Could loneliness be the cause of your anxiety?
Many of us have read about or seen in our own lives the increase in depression and anxiety over the past few years. And many of us have asked the questions, “Why is this happening?” and “What can we do to stop it?”
As the stigma surrounding mental health has diminished during the pandemic and more people than ever seek treatment, at the same time we need to be able to better understand and identify mental health issues in ourselves and in our families. loved ones and how to deal with them. . From daily improvements in well-being to seeking professional help, the more aware we are of 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 nearly 20 years ago, specializing in child and adolescent mental and behavioral health. After years in health systems providing and leading other mental health providers, I joined SonderMind, a mental and behavioral health provider focused on improving access, utilization and outcomes in mental health, as the first chief medical officer. As I have studied the field of mental health and spoken to thousands of patients over the course of my career, I have developed a particular interest in the concept of loneliness and its impact on mental health, particularly anxiety and the Depression.
We are social creatures. Our brains have developed over millennia to interact with other humans. Recognizing emotions, faces and their expressions, voice, speech and intonation is an important part of our brain. We are wired to promote prosocial interactions.
As hard as it can be to feel alone, it’s actually protective.
The loneliness of our ancestors drove them to come together and collaborate in groups. Hunting, guarding, working and sleeping collectively have enabled our species to survive and procreate. Throughout our history, prosocial sentiments have fostered community and fostered civilization, culture, and invention. Through social connectedness and decreasing isolation, we have become the dominant animal on this planet and have evolved new ways of communicating and interacting. So much so that our inventions have led to alternative ways to interact with each other. The internet and social media have both accelerated connectivity and made many people feel more isolated and lonely – a phenomenon I will discuss in future columns.
Taking this basic understanding of loneliness and applying it to the last few years that everyone has just experienced, we have all felt lonely in one way or another. This loss of community is one of the things I see contributing to rising anxiety, which you may feel in yourself or see in a loved one. In fact, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) study, in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25%.
Common forms of anxiety I hear about in my community include:
- Anxiety about reintegrating into society or leaving home
- Anxiety about large crowds
- Travel anxiety
- Anxiety about returning to work or school in person
- Anxiety about not seeing loved ones (or not seeing them)
Although 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 problem:
For some, the longer we are away from school, work, or activities, the more prominent avoidance behaviors can become. This can be when it comes to social interactions or being in any public space.
We as human beings find it difficult to make decisions as they are. When we are stressed or anxious, we can think too much. This can lead to “analysis paralysis,” which can lead to poor decision-making and ineffective learning.
It’s 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 for a new job, and stepping out into a crowded area for the first time can all be anxiety-provoking, even under the best of circumstances.
So what should we do with loneliness and anxiety when we see them in a loved one or experience them ourselves?
I was encouraged to see that the US Task Force on Preventive Services recommended adults under 65 be screened for anxiety last month. This is in addition to their recent recommendation that all children between the ages of 8 and 18 should be screened for anxiety during their regular primary care appointments. Not only does this reduce mental health stigma, but the sooner we can identify a problem and place that person in high-quality care, the better the outcomes.
If you are feeling anxious or lonely, I recommend getting tested by your GP or finding a therapist. The data we have at SonderMind shows that people who start therapy often feel better in 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, medication therapy can be a powerful option and should be considered as part of any personalized treatment plan. When you see signs of loneliness or anxiety in yourself or a loved one, an important first step is to seek professional help. You are not alone in struggling with these very common and highly treatable mental health issues.