September 12, 2022

Dear Colleagues,

The National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC) provides information about relevant and current research in service of disseminating and promoting evidence-based treatment. This month’s summary is written by Annika Okamoto, PhD, representing NSAC Santa Barbara, and examines the article, A Global Longitudinal Study Examining Social Restrictions Severity on Loneliness, Social Anxiety.

In a joint venture to explore changes to mental health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom examined how new social restrictions affected mental-health and well-being. They conducted a longitudinal cohort study whereby community members were surveyed across three timepoints in the first six months of the pandemic. 1562 participants gave ratings on loneliness, social anxiety, depression, and social restrictions severity. Longitudinal data were analyzed using a multivariate latent growth curve model.

The researchers found that people who rated their loneliness higher in the beginning of the pandemic also gave higher ratings to subsequent social anxiety and depressive symptoms, which indicates the need to address loneliness to improve such symptoms. The results showed that as the social restrictions were lifted, depression marginally reduced, yet social anxiety symptoms increased. Levels of social anxiety rose fastest where restrictions were eased fastest, indicating adjustment difficulties.

Certain demographic characteristics predicted higher loneliness, depression, and social anxiety such as being 18–25 years of age, unemployed, of lower than average wealth, and living alone. People over 25 years old reduced faster on depression scores, while those younger than 25 and unemployed increased faster on social anxiety as the restrictions were eased.

Take-away: the faster speed of phasing out of lockdowns and social restrictions resulted in higher social anxiety symptoms. Clinicians are likely to see exacerbated symptoms as social restrictions continue to ease, especially in young adults, who are disproportionately affected by social anxiety.

What skills would be important to teach for a young adult who is attempting to rejoin social activities after pandemic restrictions have eased?

Lim, M. H., Qualter, P., Thurston, L., Eres, R., Hennessey, A., Holt-Lunstad, J., & Lambert, G. W. (2022). A global longitudinal study examining social restrictions severity on loneliness, social anxiety, and depression. Frontiers in Psychiatry, March 28, 2022.

Annika Okamoto, PhD, A-CBT
NSAC Santa Barbara (California Counseling Clinics)