The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic blurred the lines between loneliness and anxiety. But what’s the difference? In this Healthline article, Mindpath Health’s Julian Lagoy, MD, explains how these two feelings come from different states of mind.

How Loneliness Differs from Anxiety and What You Can Do About It

The COVID-19 pandemic and its isolating effects have touched nearly everybody. This isolation has produced varying forms of loneliness in many people at times. In particular, there are concerns over the extent of what’s being described in a new study as chronic loneliness.

The researchers say that despite overlaps, this type of loneliness and social anxiety are driven by different states of mind.

“The key conclusion is that chronic loneliness is a complex construct and should not be grouped with other disorders,” says Dirk Scheele, PhD, a study author and researcher in the department of psychiatry at the University of Oldenburg in Germany.

“We might need to adapt interventions to reduce loneliness,” he added.

What the study revealed

The researchers explored the differences by comparing how people with high and low loneliness behaved in a social gambling task.

Participants played a computer game where they could make a safe bet and win a smaller amount of money, or make a riskier bet for a larger sum. If they took the riskier bet, they watched a video of a virtual human showing approval or disapproval.

People with social anxiety took the safe bet more often to avoid feedback from the videos, the researchers reported. People with high — or chronic — loneliness did not display this social avoidance.

By measuring the participants’ brain activity during the task, the researchers found people with social anxiety displayed signs of heightened anxiety as well as signs of reduced social reward.

Neither activity pattern appeared in people with high loneliness, indicating loneliness is unique, requiring its own interventions.

The importance of the research

Jana Lieberz, MSc, another study author and a researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany, said these findings could help clinicians hone in on more successful ways to help people manage chronic loneliness.

“This is the first time I have heard of such a distinction between social anxiety and chronic loneliness in literature,” Dr. Julian Lagoy, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health says.

“I think these findings will definitely have a significant impact to understand loneliness and to help treatment of both loneliness and social anxiety,” Lagoy said.

What is chronic loneliness?

Understanding the difference between social anxiety, acute loneliness, and chronic loneliness can be challenging, since the result (usually social isolation) can be the same.

Acute loneliness is usually precipitated by some kind of event that a person can pinpoint such as a pandemic, said Angeleena May, a licensed mental health counselor and the executive director for AMFM Healthcare. Chronic loneliness can seem to have seeped in over time with no clear starting point.

Sarah Greenberg, a licensed psychotherapist, suggests anyone going through this should ask themselves questions similar to the ones researchers use to assess levels of loneliness:

  • How often do I feel isolated from others?
  • How often do I feel left out?
  •  How often do I feel a lack of companionship?

What to do

It’s important to first realize that chronic loneliness can be detrimental to long-term health and should be treated.

“Chronic loneliness can impact a person’s sense of worth, which then leads to a negative view of oneself,” he said.

In other words: Don’t brush it off. And yet, many do.

“Chronic loneliness is a substantial problem in our society and it is difficult to treat because a lot of people do not want to admit they are lonely in the first place,” Lagoy said.

May said that unlike acute loneliness, when a person can often draw on experiences when they did not feel that way, chronic loneliness needs more in-depth support.

Digging into those core beliefs that are driving a person to the place of loneliness is key, she said.

To do that, one needs guidance and help.

Sometimes, there’s value in a residential setting in which the person can both work with their therapist and in groups and then practice with others there.

Read the full Healthline article with sources.

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