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13-05-2021 | Original Article | Uitgave 4/2021

Cognitive Therapy and Research 4/2021

Social Distancing During A COVID-19 Lockdown Contributes to The Maintenance of Social Anxiety: A Natural Experiment

Cognitive Therapy and Research > Uitgave 4/2021
Gal Arad, Dana Shamai-Leshem, Yair Bar-Haim
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Gal Arad and Dana Shamai-Leshem have contributed equally to this work.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to extensive social distancing measures. For those suffering from social anxiety, social distancing coincides with a tendency to avoid social interactions. We used this natural experiment imposed by a COVID-19 lockdown to examine how mandated low social exposure influenced socially anxious university students, and compared their anxiety to that of socially anxious students in preceding academic years with no social distancing.


Ninety-nine socially anxious students were assessed for social anxiety symptoms at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters. Students from the 2019–2020 academic year (which included a lockdown followed by social distancing measures at the end of the fall semester) were compared to students from preceding years (2016–2019) on social anxiety levels.


Whereas social anxiety decreased in socially anxious students from the fall to the spring semester in the years preceding the pandemic, during the 2019–2020 academic year social anxiety levels remained high and unchanged. These results held when controlling for depressive symptoms and when analyzing social anxiety items that cannot be confounded with COVID-19-related anxiety.


The current results suggest that reduced exposure to social situations may play a role in the maintenance of social anxiety. Alternative explanations are discussed.

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