One of the many benefits of Mountain Valley’s beautiful location in the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire is our proximity to Dartmouth College and its world class medical school and teaching hospital. Mountain Valley’s relationship with Dartmouth provides us with many benefits, such as Dartmouth psychology interns and psychiatry fellows doing clinical rotations in Mountain Valley’s therapeutic milieu, our residents undergoing exposure work on the Dartmouth campus, and ample cultural and recreational activities for our residents to enjoy on the weekends. Occasionally, it also allows us the fortune of being first-hand witnesses to historic events such as Dartmouth hosting U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and his seven living predecessors for a panel discussion titled, “Future of Mental Health and Wellness.”

During the discussion, Murthy and his predecessors discussed their concerns about the national mental health crisis and how to combat it. This comes on the heels of Murthy releasing a new Surgeon General Advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country.

Murthy said that in the face of unprecedented loneliness and mental health issues, community is one of the keys to repairing the crisis. Murthy brought the conversation to the challenge of community and interpersonal connection. “For a lot of us this issue is very personal,” he said, asking the audience to raise their hands if they or someone in their lives had struggled with mental health or loneliness; almost everyone in attendance in the basketball arena raised their hand.

This discussion prompted me to reflect on how loneliness in particular can have profound and far-reaching effects on mental health, impacting various aspects of well-being. We humans are social creatures, and a lack of meaningful social connections can contribute to a range of emotional and psychological challenges, including debilitating anxiety. It is no coincidence that coming off the devastating effects of the COVID 19 pandemic and the explosion of social media and other immersive online experiences that our country is facing epidemics of both loneliness and anxiety.

Loneliness and anxiety are interconnected, and the relationship between the two can be complex. Loneliness, characterized by a perceived lack of social connection or meaningful relationships, can have various effects on anxiety.

Here are some ways in which loneliness can impact anxiety:

  • Increased Stress Levels: Loneliness often leads to heightened stress levels. The absence of social support can make it challenging for individuals to cope with life’s stressors, contributing to increased feelings of anxiety.
  • Negative Thought Patterns: Social isolation can give rise to negative thought patterns and self-perceptions. Individuals who feel lonely may be more prone to self-doubt, negative self-talk, and a heightened sense of vulnerability, all of which can contribute to anxiety.
  • Rumination and Overthinking: When individuals are lonely, they may spend more time ruminating on negative thoughts and experiences. Overthinking and dwelling on perceived social inadequacies can exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
  • Impaired Coping Mechanisms: Social connections often serve as a crucial support system for coping with life’s challenges. Loneliness can limit the availability of these coping mechanisms, making it harder for individuals to manage stress and anxiety effectively.
  • Physical Health Impact: Loneliness has been linked to various physical health issues, including increased inflammation, cardiovascular problems, and compromised immune function. The stress associated with loneliness can contribute to these health issues, potentially worsening overall well-being and increasing anxiety.
  • Social Anxiety Development: Long-term loneliness may contribute to the development or exacerbation of social anxiety. The fear of judgment, rejection, or negative evaluation can intensify in the absence of positive social interactions, further isolating individuals and perpetuating a cycle of anxiety.
  • Sleep Disturbances: Loneliness can disrupt sleep patterns. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing restful sleep can contribute to fatigue and irritability, which are common symptoms of anxiety.
  • Reduced Emotional Regulation: Social connections play a role in emotional regulation. Loneliness may impair an individual’s ability to regulate emotions effectively, leading to heightened emotional reactivity and an increased susceptibility to anxiety.

Addressing loneliness involves not only building social connections but also addressing the underlying thoughts and beliefs that contribute to feelings of isolation. Seeking support from friends, family, or mental health professionals can be crucial in breaking the cycle of loneliness and alleviating associated anxiety symptoms.

This is why the importance of group therapy, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, and the therapeutic milieu approach to treatment are so invaluable in confronting the epidemic of anxiety and loneliness that is currently confronting young people across the country. ERP has many benefits, but one of the greatest in this context is breaking the cycle of avoidance. It’s important to note that the relationship between loneliness and anxiety is bidirectional. While loneliness can contribute to anxiety, individuals with anxiety may often struggle with forming and maintaining social connections, creating a vicious circle of reinforcement of maladaptive behaviors and responses.

Regina Benjamin, surgeon general from 2009 to 2013, emphasized the complex challenge of mental health issues. “Health does not occur in the doctor’s office or in a hospital alone,” Benjamin said. “It occurs where we live, where we learn, where we work, where we play, where we pray — everything that we do.” Treatment that takes place within a therapeutic residential milieu allows those struggling with anxiety to heal and learn not simply in the siloed isolation of an office, but alongside peers in a collaborative environment that enhances feelings of autonomy and self-efficacy.

When loneliness and anxiety have reached a crisis point, the therapeutic milieu fosters a sense of community and belonging. Individuals often share common experiences and goals, and the supportive environment encourages social interaction, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness, and promoting a sense of connection. A therapeutic milieu plays a pivotal role in the holistic approach to mental health treatment. By emphasizing safety, community, and collaboration, it creates an environment where individuals can feel secure, connected, and supported on their journey toward recovery. The sense of belonging, mutual support, and normalization of daily activities within the therapeutic milieu contribute to the overall well-being of individuals receiving mental health care.