Diagnosing Social Isolation Definition And Seeking Help

By Sarah Fader |Updated July 29, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Dawn Brown, LPC

Social isolation is when an individual withdraws from society to the point where he rarely or never has any contact with other human beings. Is this the same thing as loneliness? No, because loneliness is largely temporary, or at least, it's manageable with shallow but select friendships.

What is Social Isolation

Social isolation goes beyond the norm, and beyond loneliness. It affects people of all ages, and not surprisingly, seems to affect people who have had a lifelong pattern of being isolated or having very few friends. When someone is isolated from most of society, he or she may become a hermit at home, or minimize even contact with family or friends. This becomes the pattern, and so the person learns to avoid interaction since it becomes uncomfortable over time.

Social isolation definition is that it's a chronic condition that affects not just a person's general perspective, but every aspect of their existence. Personality disorders or traits of such disorders can appear, including the need to avoid others, or have dangerously low self-esteem which leads to suicidal thoughts and sometimes actions.

Of course, everybody knows social isolation exists. Maybe we even think it's just common for some people and that these recluses seek happiness in video games, or online surfing, or some other hobby that satisfies their need.

Unfortunately, the problem is not that simple. Recently, medical experts have found that social isolation is a life risk and that it's even comparable to obesity or smoking.

The Effects of Social Isolation

According to statistics quoted in a Slate article, loneliness is a serious health risk and people who live in perpetual social isolation, are twice as likely to die prematurely. The risk is heightened if they are elderly. Loneliness proved more deadly, statistically speaking than obesity, and equal with smoking.

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It's not that socially isolated individuals are committing acts of self-harm. There are physical ailments taking place because of the isolation. Immune function is negatively affected, inflammation occurs, and this can even lead to more serious effects like heart disease and diabetes. This coincided with biological studies performed by Cacioppo and Hawkley stating that every life form, from mice to fruit flies, to rats and pigs, to birds, suffered physical ailments as a result of social isolation.

What Are the Causes of Social Isolation?

Social isolation can be caused for many reasons, some genetic, some environmental, and even as a form of domestic violence. Partners who want full control will often isolate the person from everyone he/she knows. Besides willful isolation (including the unhealthy desire to avoid people, indicative of Avoidant Personality Disorder), other causes include:

  • Childhood trauma and verbally or emotionally abusive parenting
  • Personality disorders (including autism)
  • Loss of a spouse
  • Problems getting around town (such as no car or no driver's license)
  • Unemployment
  • Substance abuse

Three other reasons for social isolation are worth mentioning. Living alone actually causes social isolation and statistics seem to agree that more people are living alone, and more people are suffering the effects of isolation. Missing events, even if it's by accident, can have a negative effect on a person and cause a chain reaction of avoiding other events. Simply put, the more sociable a person is, the more he stays that way. If he rarely gets out in the first place and then starts missing important events, he will slowly fall back into his shell.

The social isolation in nursing diagnosis refers to attitudes that develop because of poor nursing home care. When patients are admitted to a nursing home or assisted living facility and lack a strong community of friends and family to interact with, they often will deteriorate quickly. Not only does visiting with family keep them mentally and physically healthy, but the nursing home community can institute a social isolation care plan to make sure each resident gets plenty of association and emotional stimulation.

Lastly, societal adversity is an interesting case, since this directly involves the types of conversations he has with other people. The sufferer will deliberately avoid people because of the discomfort he feels, or the perceived danger, or even the responsibility that comes from being around people. Naturally, this attitude follows negative encounters in which other people are rude, hostile, or critical. Social isolation, while unpleasant is now considered, less stressful than trying to coexist with others.

Social Isolation and Depression - The Harlow Experiments

To discover the effects of social isolation on Rhesus monkeys, Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments. His research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison saw the creation of inanimate surrogate mothers made of wood, which would interact with infants. Monkeys that were socially isolated came out of their chambers with "disturbed" symptoms.

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Does Social Media Create Isolation?

Perhaps in the past, we knew what the dangers were and so could better help people inclined towards social isolation. The Internet and social media, however, changed our culture. Now we have what might as well be "surrogate emotional connection," namely, the idea that we are virtually chatting and socializing-although we rarely leave the house and only interact with machines.

Mobile phones and tablets do simulate interaction thanks to webcams and microphones, but is this real human connection? Many psychologists say no and quote rising rates of social isolation and depression. Tests quoted in Science Direct revealed that even "socially active" web users still felt socially isolated. In fact, the more addicted they were to social media, the higher their degree of unhappiness. Social media isolation preys upon our need to fit in, and yet only succeeds in promoting a brand or a social cause, while leaving many individuals personally abandoned. They only get the attention they crave when they're talking about popular hashtags or campaigns.

For most people, social networking has caused great stress, even among family members. One reason could well be that without physical interaction, we misread statements and we say things we simply wouldn't say face to face. We communicate ideas without actually interacting with people.

As far as social isolation in emerging adulthood, this is unfortunate since the high school and college years is where people learn so much of their people skills and learn how to communicate professionally, personally, and effectively. Other people are our greatest source of comfort. Ostracism can lead to physical pain and increase stress hormones. This eventually affects the sleeping cycle and wreaks havoc on an aging person's body especially, since they are more susceptible to physical and cognitive decline passed retirement age.

When we are socially active, we use most of our resources to process all these external stimuli. However, when our surroundings and environments become routine, all of these processes are turned inward. We become introspective and dwell on depressing thoughts. This is a very dangerous process for teens and young adults, since they may not have the experience to deal with these mood swings.

Some even speculate that social isolation can enhance anxiety and paranoia-even to the extent that one begins to see ghosts or sense otherworldly presences.

The Effects of Social Isolation on Mental Health Can be Fatal!

More modern experiments have shown technology, and social isolation may not be good for each other. An addiction to virtual companionship (even if those thoughts are from other people) can enhance social isolation symptoms. Even social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram have gained a reputation for many disturbing blogs from users who hyper-focus on themes involving depression and suicide.

With the added threat of cyber-bullying, this has led to tragic consequences, sometimes even teenagers taking their own lives.

In our attempt to define the bystander effect we've touched upon an important part of self-improvement in the 21st century. We must outgrow online interaction as a surrogate community. Statistically, we know it only makes people feel more isolated. The goal would be to make more friends in the physical world, and developing meaningful relationships, while treating online interactions as a passing amusement, only as relevant to one's life as the television set.

This will not necessarily be easy, especially if the online addiction has been growing over time. Now that we've discussed the bystander effect and psychology definition, you know the risks. If you or anyone you know has a problem with social isolation and has been showing signs of suicidal ideation (fantasizing about death or killing themselves) then this a critical stage in time.

Getting professional help from a licensed therapist may save someone's life, or at the very least, help them break away from depressive habits. If you or this family member is suffering from other disorders, such as OCD or borderline or bipolar, a psychologist may also be able to help in this respect.

The first step is reaching out to someone. The advantage of an online therapy center like BetterHelp (https://www.betterhelp.com/start/) is that you can decide the days and hours that are best for you. You can speak to one therapist you like or chat with more than one. Text chat, web cameras, and phone calls are all available for you. This is the most productive way to address the problem. You can help re-learn how to take control of your life and make positive changes.

No, you can never eliminate depression just by thinking positive. But you can learn to control your moods so that you can avoid the extreme highs and lows that make the condition unbearable. Reaching out for help is the best choice to make to ensure a happy future!

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