Seeking Support For Social Isolation

Updated November 30, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Social isolation is when an individual withdraws from society to the point where they rarely or never have any contact with other human beings. This is not the same thing as loneliness -- loneliness is largely temporary, or at least, more manageable with shallow but select friendships.

There are many reasons why people may choose to or inadvertently isolate themselves, and there are also effective, empowering ways to re-enter society at one’s own pace. 

What Is Social Isolation?

Social isolation 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, they may confine themselves to their home or minimize even contact with family or friends. This becomes a pattern in the face of potentially stressful or overwhelming social or environmental situations, and so the person learns to avoid interaction as it becomes uncomfortable over time.

Social isolation is a chronic condition that can affect 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, low self-esteem, orsuicidal thoughts and actions.

Maybe we underestimate the consequences of social isolation because we observe so many people seeking happiness in video games, online surfing, or other hobbies that don’t involve being in the physical presence of others. Unfortunately, the problem is not that simple. Recently, medical experts have found that social isolation is as risky as obesity or smoking.

What Are The Effects Of Social Isolation?

According to research, 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 proves more deadl than obesity, statistically speaking,and equally potent as smoking tobacco.

Feeling Disconnected Or Lonely?

What do we mean by ‘risk’ when it comes to social isolation? How can you hurt yourself if you’re just minding your own business? It's not necessary that socially isolated individuals are committing acts of self-harm or scheming to hurt other people, as the media sometimes portrays in its stereotypes of socially isolated people.

Physical ailments and other mental health issues can stem from isolation. Biological studies performed by Cacioppo and Hawkley affirm that every life form, from mice to fruit flies, to rats and pigs and birds, suffered physical ailments as a result of social isolation. Such physical and mental health challenges can include:

  • Depression

  • Poor sleep quality

  • Impaired executive function

  • Accelereated cognitive decline

  • Poor cardiovascular function

  • Impaired immunity

  • Increased risk of premature death

What Are The Causes Of Social Isolation?

Social isolation can be caused for many reasons: some are genetic, and some are environmental, as in examples of domestic violence. Partners who want full control may 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

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

  • Loss of a spouse

  • Transportation challenges (i.e., no car or no driver’s license)

  • Unemployment

  • Substance abuse

Three other reasons for social isolation are worth further elaboratrion. Living alone actually causes social isolation and statistics seem to agree that more people are living alone, and more people are managing the effects of social 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. 

A 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 may 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, someone may deliberately avoid people because of the discomfort they feel, the perceived level of danger, or the emotional labor that comes from being around people. This attitude often develops following negative encounters in which other people are rude, hostile, or critical. Social isolation, while unpleasant, is viewed as, less stressful than trying to coexist with others.

Does Social Media Create Isolation?

The Internet and social media have permanently changed the ways people act with one another in society. Now we have what might as well be "surrogate emotional connection," namely, the concept that we are virtually engaging via machines without necessarily being in others’ physical presence.

Mobile phones and tablets do simulate interaction thanks to webcams and microphones, but do these interactions qualify as genuine human connections? 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 content often preys upon our need to fit in, promotes certain brands or social causes, and leaves many individuals feeling abandoned. They may only get the attention they crave when refer to popular topics or hashtags, or even unpopular or controversial ideas.

For many people, social networking has caused great stress, even among family. One reason could well be that we are more likely to misread statements or say things we simply wouldn't say face to face over an electronic device. 

People learn so much of their personal and professional communication skills in high school and college Other people are often our greatest source of comfort in this journey, though they can also serve as a source of fear, shame, or disgust. 

If people feel they are not conforming to cultural standards of acceptable interaction, they may ostracize themselves to avoid further pain and rejection. Ostracism can lead to physical pain and increase stress hormones. This can eventually affect the sleeping cycle and wreak havoc on an aging person's body especially, since they are more susceptible to physical and cognitive decline after retirement age.

When we are socially active, we use most of our resources to process external stimuli. However, when our surroundings and environments become routine, these processes may be turned inward. We might become introspective and dwell on depressing thoughts. 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.

Can The Effects Of Social Isolation On Mental Health Be Fatal?

More modern experiments have shown that technology and social isolation may not be the perfect match they’re depicted as in the media. An addiction to virtual companionship) 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.New social phenomena like cyber-bullying have led to tragic consequences, sometimes even teen suicide.

While online interactions – when satisfying – can enhance someone’s self-concept, a surrogate community alone is not an acceptable substitute for bona fide in-person interaction.  It can be overwhelming to even think about venturing outside of one’s comfort zone and into the “real world,” but the risks of doing so can provide more benefits than remaining indoors and untethered to the outside community.

Feeling Disconnected Or Lonely?

How Can Therapy Address Social Isolation?

Getting professional help from a licensed therapist may save someone's life, or at the very least, help them break away from depressive habits.

The first step is reaching out to someone. The advantage of an online therapy center like BetterHelp 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.

Online therapy is an effective method for treating social isolation and other symptoms of loneliness. In one study of older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic, online interventions were found beneficial in helping the adults overcome social isolation. In another study analyzing the effect of online peer support communities for military caregivers, results indicated that caregivers who participated in the online intervention experienced less self-reported social isolation over time. It is worth noting that more severe symptoms of depression accompanying social isolation may warrant more intensive treatment (which you can also seek through online therapy platforms like BetterHelp). 

Contrary to popular belief, positive psychology alone can rarely amend social isolation issues. You can, however, 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 simple using platforms like BetterHelp. A qualified therapist is available today to help you find a way back to your chosen community.

For additional help & support with your concerns

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get The Support You Need From One Of Our TherapistsGet Started