Understanding Social Isolation: Definition And Seeking Help

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Social isolation can happen when an individual withdraws from society to the point that they rarely or never have contact with other human beings. This type of isolation can contribute to physical and mental health challenges such as depression, impaired immunity, poor sleep quality, and accelerated cognitive decline. A variety of situations may cause a person to become socially isolated, potentially including adverse childhood experiences, grief, unemployment, substance use disorder, and transportation challenges. Social media often contributes to the isolation many feel today. Therapy, whether online or in person, can be one way to effectively address social isolation and begin to reintegrate into society.

What is social isolation?

Feeling disconnected or lonely?

Social isolation can affect people of all ages, but it often seems to affect those with a lifelong pattern of being isolated or having very few friends. When someone is isolated from most of society, they may confine themself to their home and minimize contact with family or friends. This can become a pattern in the face of potentially stressful or overwhelming social or environmental situations, so an individual may learn to avoid interaction as it can become uncomfortable over time.

Social isolation can be a chronic condition that may affect a person's general perspective and potentially every aspect of their existence. Personality disorders or traits of such disorders can appear, including the need to avoid others, low self-esteem, and suicidal thoughts and actions*. Recently, social isolation may be as risky for overall health as obesity or smoking.

*If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available. You can contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 24/7 at 988.

What are the effects of social isolation?

According to research, loneliness can be a serious health risk, and people who live in perpetual social isolation may be twice as likely to die prematurely. The risk can be heightened when an isolated individual is elderly. Loneliness may be more harmful to health than obesity, in terms of statistics, and it may be as harmful as smoking tobacco.

Physical ailments and other mental health issues can stem from isolation.

Research has shown that social isolation can have a variety of harmful effects on an individual's health, including:

  • Depression
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Impaired executive function
  • Accelerated 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 genetic and environmental reasons. For example, in an abusive relationship*, it’s possible that partners who want full control may isolate the other person from everyone they know. 

Aside from willful isolation (including the potentially unhealthy desire to avoid people, which is sometimes indicative of Avoidant Personality Disorder), other causes of isolation may 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 use disorder

Living alone can contribute to social isolation, and statistics seem to agree that more people are generally living alone these days, which can mean that more people may be experiencing the effects of social isolation. Missing events, even if it's by accident, can have a negative effect on a person and potentially cause a chain reaction of avoiding other events. 

A social isolation in nursing diagnosis generally refers to attitudes that can 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 often help to 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 may feel, the perceived level of danger involved, or the emotional labor that can come from being around people. This attitude often develops following negative encounters in which other people are rude, hostile, or critical. Social isolation, while it may be unpleasant, can be viewed as less stressful than trying to coexist with others.

iStock/Ivan Pantic

Social media’s effects on isolation

The internet and social media seem to have permanently changed the ways people interact with one another in society. Now we may have what could be referred to as “surrogate emotional connections”. In other words, we tend to engage virtually via technology without necessarily connecting with in person.

Mobile phones and tablets may simulate interaction thanks to webcams and microphones, but do these interactions qualify as genuine human connections? Many psychologists may say no and quote rising rates of social isolation and depression. Tests quoted in Science Direct revealed that even “socially active” web users often felt socially isolated. In many cases, the more addicted a person is to social media, the higher their degree of unhappiness may be. 

Social media content often preys upon the common need to fit in, promotes certain brands and social causes, and can leave many individuals feeling abandoned. Individuals may only get the attention they crave when they refer to popular topics or even express unpopular, controversial ideas.

For many people, social networking can cause great stress, even among family. One reason for this could be that we are usually more likely to misread statements or say things we wouldn't say face-to-face over an electronic device. 

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 a person’s physical health, especially if that person is elderly, since they may be more susceptible to physical and cognitive decline after retirement age.

When we are socially active, we typically 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 upsetting thoughts. Some even speculate that social isolation could enhance anxiety and paranoia.

Technology and social isolation may not be the perfect match they’re often depicted to be in the media. An addiction to virtual companionship may enhance social isolation symptoms in some people. Social media sites like Tumblr and Instagram can feature potentially disturbing posts from users who may hyper-focus on themes involving depression and suicide. New social phenomena, like cyberbullying, can lead to tragic consequences, sometimes even including teen suicide.

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

Feeling disconnected or lonely?

How therapy can help 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 can be reaching out to someone. The advantage of an online therapy platform may be that you can decide the days and hours that are best for you. Online chat, video chat, and phone call options may be available for you. If you have a hard time socializing and communicating with others, you may initially feel more comfortable speaking to a therapist by typing out your thoughts and feelings.

Online therapy can be 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 addition, online therapy is generally shown to have the same efficacy rate as traditional in-office therapy.


When a person rarely interacts with others and withdraws from society, they could be considered socially isolated. Social isolation may occur due to various mental health disorders, traumatic experiences, transportation challenges, and other causes. It can contribute to a variety of physical and mental health issues, potentially including impaired executive function, poor sleep quality, and depression. If you or a loved one is experiencing social isolation, attending therapy sessions online can be an effective first step toward embracing interaction with others.
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