Understanding And Managing Withdrawn Behavior

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 13, 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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Do you feel a sense of isolation and disconnection, even when surrounded by friends or loved ones? Are you finding it increasingly difficult to engage in social activities due to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, or a lack of energy or enthusiasm? If so, you may be experiencing withdrawn behavior. Once commonly referred to as antisocial behavior, most experts now avoid that term because it is used to identify a lack of empathy and symptoms that may be related to antisocial disorders. Withdrawn behavior is now an umbrella term used in psychology to identify socially restrained behaviors.  

Social withdrawal and isolation may have a variety of causes and often leads to feelings of loneliness, sadness, and even depression, as socialization is key for healthy development. By understanding why you’re feeling this way, you may be better able to take steps to overcome it and improve your mental and emotional well-being and reduce your withdrawn behaviors.

Take the first step towards overcoming withdrawn behavior

Signs of withdrawn behavior

There are different subtypes of withdrawal behavior, and recognizing the signs of these behaviors can allow you to seek support if you realize you’re exhibiting it, or to offer support if you notice it in a loved one. Self-isolation is one of the most common and recognizable signs of withdrawn behavior. It may look like turning down invitations and avoiding social interactions and situations, from parties and events to casual gatherings with friends and family. It may be especially concerning if you’re typically a highly socially competent person. 

Another potential sign of withdrawn behavior is a lack of enthusiasm or motivation. You might feel like you’re simply going through the motions rather than actually experiencing enjoyment from the activities you normally do. This type of behavioral inhibition may also impact your communication and peer interactions, manifesting as trouble starting or maintaining conversation or having difficulty motivating yourself to return calls or texts.

Social withdrawal can begin in early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, or adulthood. Withdrawn children may have slightly different signs than withdrawn adults. Socially withdrawn children may be referred to as shy children or fearful children. They may have school difficulties, exhibit disruptive behavior, struggle with verbal communication, or experience low moods. They may also try to avoid school activities or social interactions.

Common causes of social withdrawal behaviors

From biological factors to experiencing a poor parent-child relationship growing up, there are many potential causes of withdrawn behavior. Social reticence can also develop early as a factor in a temperamental disposition. Many of us feel the need to be on our own from time to time, or may decide to take a temporary break from a busy social life. An occasional social break can be positively related to good self-care. However, consistently displaying withdrawn behavior over time, to an extreme degree, or to the point where it’s impacting one’s life or well-being may be cause for concern. The following are some common potential causes of this type of withdrawn and solitary behavior.

Social anxiety

Social anxiety disorder is a common type of clinical anxiety disorder. It’s characterized by a fear of social situations, especially those where judgment, peer rejection, and/or embarrassment are possible outcomes. They often fear social rejection or social exclusion. While its severity can vary, people with this disorder may experience mental and physical symptoms at the thought of social or peer interaction, or when forced to participate in it. These may include a rapid heart rate, sweating, blushing, nausea, a rigid body posture, and difficulty making eye contact, among others. As a result, people with this disorder may avoid some or all social situations altogether, constituting socially withdrawn behavior.


Other mental health conditions

While virtually all symptoms of social anxiety disorder relate to social interaction, people with other mental health conditions may also experience withdrawn behavior. Depression, for instance, is a mental health and emotional disorder that’s commonly associated with a lack of interest in activities once enjoyed as well as low energy and a sense of hopelessness, all of which can make social interaction feel difficult or even pointless. Additional types of anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental illnesses can also result in withdrawn behavior as an individual tries to cope with their symptoms.

Physical health conditions

A person who has a physical health condition, especially one that’s chronic, debilitating, and/or associated with consistent and/or intense pain, may also experience social withdrawal. It may be hard for them to enjoy social situations when they’re in pain or worried about their health. Some individuals with certain health conditions or disabilities may also find it hard, frustrating, or even impossible to attend social events due to difficulties leaving the house or visiting inaccessible public locations.

Trauma or grief

Experiencing a difficult or traumatic life event can also cause a person to withdraw from others. An individual may feel that no one can understand exactly what they’ve been through and may choose to self-isolate as a result. They might also feel shame, embarrassment, anger, or guilt as a result of their experience, which can be difficult emotions to discuss with others. Or, a person may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated grief, or another condition that may cause them to feel isolated from those around them, make them not want to burden others, or drain their social energy.

Substance use issues

One study found that those with substance use disorder were more likely to report feelings of loneliness and isolation than those not experiencing this disorder. Researchers suggest it may be a result of feeling different due to their disorder, or even that social isolation and loneliness may be a risk factor for developing substance use issues. Because of common misconceptions about substance use disorder being a matter of willpower rather than the clinical mental health disorder that it is, some individuals may also exhibit withdrawn behavior out of a sense of shame or embarrassment.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

Lack of social skills or confidence

Extreme fear of social situations is likely to be classified as social anxiety disorder. However, even if an individual’s concerns around social situations don’t reach the clinical level, they may still feel hesitant or nervous to engage socially or participate in peer relationships due to a lack of social skills or negative self esteem. If they sometimes experience difficulty picking up social cues, as some people with autism spectrum disorder report, have experienced and/or fear rejection, or have low self-esteem, for example, an individual may exhibit withdrawn behavior rather than risk the embarrassment or judgment they fear.


A person might socially withdraw because of outside influences in society—if they don’t feel connected to those around them due to cultural factors, for example. Pressure to look, dress, or act a certain way within their family, neighborhood, culture, or country could also cause someone to withdraw, especially if it’s accompanied by fear of judgment or retaliation for being oneself. The environment can have a significant impact on socially withdrawn children as well. For example, they may withdraw due to bullying from aggressive children or social pressure to fit in at school. This type of anxious solitude can lead to internalizing problems, which may lead to issues later down the road. 

Take the first step towards overcoming withdrawn behavior

Supporting socially withdrawn children or adults

Noticing that a family relative, neighbor, coworker, or friend is exhibiting withdrawn behavior can be concerning. If you’ve recognized the signs in someone you love and want to support them, you might start by being a good listener. If they have fears around spending time with others, are experiencing a physical or mental health concern, or have identified some other reason for their social behavior, it may help them to talk about it with a supportive friend. 

Offering encouragement around adopting healthier habits and celebrating their efforts and successes can be helpful as well, though it’s typically important to remember to be patient as pushing them before they’re ready can lead to further isolation. Finally, you might gently encourage them to connect with a counselor or therapist if the problem is ongoing and is resulting in negative outcomes in their life.

Addressing withdrawn behavior in yourself

If you’ve noticed that you’ve become more socially withdrawn lately, there are several steps you can take to try to address the issue. First, identifying the cause can be helpful. If you’re unsure, reflecting on your feelings through journaling or speaking with a trusted friend or counselor might assist you in figuring out what’s causing this change. Next, you might try setting small, achievable goals to get yourself to a healthier place. These might include committing to regular exercise, cultivating a mindfulness practice, joining a club or team, or arranging a phone call or coffee date to reconnect with an old friend. Remember to be compassionate and gentle with yourself along the way, and that social competence is a skill that can be built or polished like any other skill. 

Seeking support for withdrawn behavior

Finally, you may also find it helpful to meet with a therapist to address the withdrawn behavior you’ve noticed in yourself. If it’s a symptom of a mental health condition, they can make a diagnosis if applicable and help you develop coping techniques and slowly introduce social novelty. If it’s due to low self-esteem, negative self-regard, or a lack of social skills, they can help you build these over time. If you’ve begun to isolate yourself from social contact because of grief or trauma, they can assist you in working through these difficult emotions.

If you’re unsure about why your behavior has shifted this way, a therapist can provide a safe, nonjudgmental space for you to express and examine your emotions to identify the underlying cause and get support in addressing it.

If you’ve been feeling socially withdrawn lately, the thought of traveling to a therapist’s office for an in-person session may seem daunting or even impossible. If this is the case, you might consider online therapy as an alternative. Research suggests that it can offer similar benefits to in-person sessions, and you can have this type of treatment from the comfort of home or anywhere you have a stable internet connection. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, or even in-app messaging depending on what makes you feel the most comfortable. 


If you or someone you love is exhibiting withdrawn behavior, there may be various potential causes, from a mental health condition to low self-esteem. Identifying the root cause, setting small, achievable goals, and speaking with a mental health professional are all strategies you might try to address this type of behavior.
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