What is Social Isolation?
Social isolation occurs when a person actively removes themselves from social interactions. For people suffering from social isolation, their primary goal is to spend time alone. Mostly they prefer to spend time away from people. When a person is physically isolated, they may live in a remote area or work in a job where they are alone for much of their day.
Becoming socially isolated is a choice a person makes when they no longer want to spend time with others. It’s important to note the differences between spending time alone and being socially isolated. We all need time to think, read, relax, or unwind in solitude. Time alone can help a person slow down from the fast pace of life and can be revitalizing and recharge. Many enjoy their own company and are comfortable alone and in social settings. For people with social isolation issues, however, there is a different reason why they need to be alone.
Part of social isolation occurs when a person lacks social relationships. People may stay home for long periods when socially isolated before leaving the house.They may go days without speaking to anyone else. People who struggle with social isolation lack the desire to form meaningful, long-term relationships. If you prefer social isolation, you will go to great lengths to avoid relationships and interactions with others, making them as brief as possible without having to engage in lengthy conversations.
Types of Social Isolation
There are two types of social isolation, both characterized by a person’s desire to be alone.
Social isolation is not a condition on its own; however, it may be a symptom of a more significant problem like a mental illness. With social isolation, a person loses pleasure in going out, and what they once enjoyed turns to stress, worry, fear, and anxiety. Social interaction becomes something dreaded instead of what they look forward to. Social isolation can hurt your relationships and may drive friends and family away the more you refuse to join them in social settings.
With emotional isolation, a person lacks any desire to form partnerships or make new friendships. Emotional isolation is a way of shutting yourself off from the world, often to avoid dealing with insecurity, anxiety, or negative thoughts about yourself. An emotionally-isolated person keeps their feelings bottled up and is unwilling to let their guard down and allow another person to get to know them with any level of intimacy.
Even when married or in a long-term relationship, they can emotionally isolate themselves from their partner. You may feel lonely even though you share a home with your spouse or family. An emotionally isolated partner may look outside the marriage to find fulfillment through infidelity or abusing drugs and alcohol.
Causes of Social Isolation
It can be challenging to pinpoint the exact causes of social isolation, mainly because it is often a symptom of another problem. To recover from social isolation, a therapist will prompt you to dig deeper into your past and childhood experiences to determine the source of the problem. It’s important to understand that social isolation occurs for reasons that aren’t always visible on the surface, and your therapist will work with you to uncover the hidden meanings and causes of your desire to be isolated.
While each person has unique circumstances, some common factors may contribute to social isolation. Some of these factors include:
- Physical disability and feeling ashamed by your appearance or lack of physical functioning.
- Domestic violence and the desire to hide the truth about your situation from friends, co-workers, and other family members.
- Eating disorders where you wish to hide your unhealthy relationship with food from others by simply staying home and avoiding sharing meals.
- Unemployment and the shame associated with losing your job may motivate you to stay home rather than face others.
In any of these situations, it’s evident that a person’s perception of themselves is much harsher than it needs to be. For example, if you go to a party shortly after losing your job, you will likely be met with kind and supportive words from friends; however, the shame you feel paints a very different picture in your mind, to the point where you would rather skip an event and stay home.
Symptoms of Social Isolation
If you’re uncertain if you have issues with social isolation, ask yourself if you experience any of the following symptoms when you have an upcoming social event or are just trying to stay at home:
- Avoiding situations that you once would have enjoyed
- Canceling plans at the last minute and experiencing great relief at not having to go out
- Feelings of dread or worry at times that are heavy with social events, like the holidays
- Spending an increased amount of time and energy brainstorming excuses for canceling plans or avoiding making them in the first place
- Physical symptoms that arise when you are faced with a social situation are a racing heart, dizziness, difficulty breathing, excessive sweating, nausea, and loss of appetite
- Frequent panic attacks or trouble sleeping when you think about social interaction
Social isolation and loneliness are all too common in older adults. Loneliness is the subjective feeling of being alone. While loneliness is a personal feeling, social isolation is understood by the level and frequency of one’s social interactions. Studies show that while loneliness and social isolation are unequal, both can negatively affect health through shared and different pathways. Before COVID-19, social isolation and loneliness were prevalent across Europe, the USA, and China, and it was described as a “behavioral epidemic.” Of course, this situation has worsened with the restrictions imposed to stop the viral spread.
The overall impact of COVID-19 has been intense and very challenging for many people. Quarantine and social distancing were essential to prevent the virus from spreading, but they also elevated loneliness and social isolation levels. This created physical- and mental-health-related challenges for people. Taking steps to continue social and familial connections, maintaining healthy activities, and managing emotions helped relieve the negative consequences of loneliness and social isolation. The pandemic has brought to the surface the already existing threat to the well-being that the elderly frequently experience with social isolation and loneliness. We can commit ourselves to addressing these parts of life for older adults in the post-pandemic period by creating virtual health care, new technology, and government policy.
Why Seek Treatment for Social Isolation?
You can address some of the more significant issues at play with therapy. You can recover from social isolation and live a happy and fulfilling life. Failure to seek treatment means your social isolation can worsen and paralyze you.
A professional therapist can equip you with the tools you need to overcome your desire for isolation. Since social isolation is often a mechanism for coping with a more serious underlying issue, it takes professional help to discover your deep-rooted emotional issues and create a treatment plan to help you address them. For example, a person with an anxiety disorder may experience intense panic when thinking about an upcoming social situation. They may avoid the problem and cut themselves off from a stressful scenario to cope with these uncomfortable feelings. The trouble with using social isolation as a coping mechanism is that you need to use it with each new situation because you have not taken the time to deal with the more significant issue, which is an anxiety disorder in this case.
Signs You Need Treatment for Social Isolation
Social isolation and spending time alone may seem harmless; however, they can be part of a more serious issue. Social isolation becomes a problem when:
- You no longer benefit from or find enjoyment in being on your own.
- Your feelings of isolation are unshakeable and persist beyond just needing personal space.
- You also experience fear and stress associated with abandonment or social anxiety.
- You have a difficult time maintaining work or caring for members of your family.
- Social isolation is a symptom of a more significant problem like bipolar disorder, an eating disorder, or depression.
- Feelings of self-hatred or suicidal thoughts accompany social isolation.
If these signs sound familiar, you can likely benefit from social isolation therapy. There is no shame in needing guidance for social isolation. Asking for help and seeking a therapist is integral to learning to overcome the thoughts and behaviors contributing to social isolation.
Types of Therapy for Social Isolation
While there are many types of therapy that you may try in your sessions, there are several that are particularly effective at treating social isolation:
CBT provides you with practical tools for dealing with social isolation. CBT aims to discover when you have negative thoughts or self-talk. When you’re aware that you’re doing this, you can challenge these false perceptions and learn to replace them with more realistic thoughts.
Exposure therapy is a type of CBT that is commonly used to treat phobias, so it can be effective in dealing with social isolation. With exposure therapy, you will work with your therapist to gradually and safely reintroduce you to social situations that you typically want to avoid. The goal of exposure therapy is that once a person has repeated exposure to the thing that has brought them anxiety or fear, that phobia or stressor will lose its power, and they will no longer feel the intense dread or panic about facing their fears in the future. With social isolation, the more you avoid social events, the more you get used to being alone, and the more stressful social situations become. Exposure therapy techniques and other CBT tools can guide you toward living a life free from the desire to be alone.
Goals of Social Isolation Therapy
A person suffering from social isolation can regain control of their life through therapy. To have a stable, healthy life in mind, you may wish to set specific goals with your therapist or have more generalized plans. For example, you may seek counseling to be able to attend a family Christmas dinner this holiday. With your therapist, you can work on a treatment plan that would gradually increase your exposure to social settings until you reach a point where you can attend the dinner without experiencing the intense anxiety and worry you would have before seeking treatment. For others, a broader goal of wanting to go out more or saying “yes” to more invitations may be a good place to start. During your initial intake sessions, your therapist will get to know your unique circumstances and background so they can assess your level of social isolation and form a plan that will serve as a roadmap for your therapeutic experience.
What to Look for in a Social Isolation Therapist
Qualifications and credentials should always be the first consideration when choosing a therapist. Look for a counselor who has specific experience working with social isolation to get the most benefit from your sessions. In addition to education and experience, it’s critical that you find a therapist that you can connect with. You may need to meet with several therapists before finding the right fit, but this is an important step in your therapeutic process. If you aren’t entirely comfortable with your therapist, you may hold information back or feel more reserved, which doesn’t help the therapy process.
How to Find a Social Isolation Therapist
Finding a good therapist who can work with you to guide you through recovery from social isolation is not difficult with the right resources or referrals from a trusted friend, family member, or caregiver. To locate a social isolation therapist in your area, search TherapyTribe’s therapist directory. You may also consider online therapy, although it is beneficial for people with social isolation to get out of the house and interact with others. For this reason, group therapy or joining a social isolation support group can be highly beneficial if you struggle with social isolation issues.
If you are thinking about harming yourself, please immediately call your doctor or 911. If you are feeling hopeless, suicidal, or simply needing speaking with someone, there are free and anonymous hotlines with trained operators available to take your call. Click here for a list of hotlines.
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