What is Social Isolation?

In the broadest sense, social isolation occurs when a person actively removes themselves from social interactions with other people. For people with social isolation issues, their primary goal is spending time alone, away from other people. When a person is physically isolated, they may live in a remote area or may work in a job where they are alone for much of their day. For these people, normal social interaction resumes when they are away from their physically isolating circumstances.

Becoming socially isolated is a choice that a person makes when they no longer want to spend time with other people. It’s important to note the differences between spending time alone and versus being socially isolated. We all need time to ourselves, to think, read, relax, or just unwind in solitude. Time alone can help a person slow down from the fast pace of life, and can be revitalizing and recharging. Many people enjoy their own company and are comfortable both in being alone and in social settings. For people with social isolation issues; however, it is a very different story.

Part of social isolation occurs when a person lacks social relationships. When a person is socially isolated, they may stay home for long periods of time 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 have a problem with social isolation, you will go to great lengths to avoid relationships and interactions with others as brief possible without having to engage lengthy conversations.

Types of Social Isolation

There are two types of social isolation, and they are both characterized by a person’s chosen desire to be alone.

Social Isolation

With social isolation, a person loses pleasure in solitude, and their enjoyment turns to stress, worry, fear, and anxiety. Social interaction becomes something dreaded instead of something a person looks forward to. Social isolation is not a condition on its own; however, it may be a symptom of a larger problem like a mental illness. Social isolation can have a negative effect on your personal relationships and may drive friends and family away, the more you refuse to join them in social settings.

Emotional Isolation

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 inside and is unwilling to let their guard down and allow another person to get to know them with any level of intimacy.

Even in a marriage or long-term relationship, a person can emotionally isolate themselves from their partner. You may feel lonely even though you share a home with your spouse or family. If a partner is emotionally isolated within their relationship, they may look outside of the marriage to find fulfillment through infidelity or abusing drugs and alcohol.

Causes of Social Isolation

It can be difficult to pinpoint exact causes of social isolation, particularly because it is often a symptom of another problem. To recover from social isolation, a therapist will prompt you to dig deep 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, there are some common factors that 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 be motivation for you to stay home rather than having to 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 impending social event or are just trying to stay at home:

  • Avoiding situations that you once would have enjoyed
  • Cancelling 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, such as racing heart, dizziness, difficulty breathing, excessive sweating, nausea, and loss of appetite
  • Frequent panic attacks or trouble sleeping when you think about social interaction

Why Seek Treatment for Social Isolation?

With therapy and by addressing some of the larger issues that are at play, you can recover from social isolation and live a life that is happy and fulfilling. Failure to seek treatment means that your social isolation can worsen and become paralyzing.

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 these problems. For example, a person with an anxiety disorder may experience intense panic when thinking about an upcoming social situation. To cope with these uncomfortable feelings, they may choose to avoid the situation altogether and cut themselves off from a stressful scenario. The trouble with using social isolation as a coping mechanism is that you need to use it with each new situation that arises because you have not taken the time to deal with the larger issue, which is 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 larger problem like bipolar disorder, an eating disorder, or depression.
  • Social isolation accompanied by feelings of self-hatred or suicidal thoughts.

If any of these signs sound familiar, it’s likely that you can benefit from social isolation therapy. There is no shame in needed guidance for social isolation. Asking for help and seeking out a therapist is an important part of learning to overcome the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to social isolation.

If you are thinking about harming yourself, please call your doctor or 911 immediately. Make sure you are not alone. If ever you are feeling hopeless, suicidal, or simply in need of speaking with someone, there are free and anonymous hotlines with trained operators available to take your call.

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:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)

CBT provides you with practical tools for dealing with social isolation. The goal of CBT is to discover when you have negative thoughts or self-talk. When you’re aware that you’re doing this, you can begin to challenge these false perceptions you have and learn to replace them with more realistic thoughts.

Exposure Therapy

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 you will no longer feel the intense dread or panic about facing your 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, along with other CBT tools, can guide you towards living a life that is free from the desire to be alone.

Goals of Social Isolation Therapy

Through therapy, a person who suffers from social isolation issues can begin to regain control of their lives. With the goal of having a stable, healthy life in mind, you may wish to set specific goals with your therapist, or you may have more generalized goals. For example, you may seek counseling with the goal of being able to attend a family Christmas dinner this holiday. Together with your therapist, you can work together 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 that you would have before seeking treatment.

For other people, 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 point of 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 have a good interpersonal fit 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 fully comfortable with your therapist you may hold information back or feel quieter and more reserved, which doesn’t let them dig deep into your past and your current mental health state.

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