Human beings have an innate need to connect with others. Psychological research has consistently demonstrated that there is a significant linkage between a person’s connection to others and to physical, psychological, and emotional health. Emotional support and friendship act as important buffers to stress and have a direct impact on self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Social isolation can cause loneliness, which can then lead to other mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Social isolation occurs when a person loses contact with the outside world. Social isolation is characterized by the absence of emotional intimacy and meaningful social relationships. An individual that is socially isolated will remain at home for extended periods of time, lack communication with family and friends, and may deliberately avoid contact with others. Social isolation can trigger feelings of loneliness, apprehension, and low self-esteem. Social isolation can arise early in life, especially in response to feelings of humiliation, remorse, or alienation from negative early childhood experiences.
Social isolation can arise from fixed circumstances rather than by choice. For example, isolation can occur when an individual lives in a distant region, or when one does not have access to transportation. A person would have no choice but to remain at home, thus missing out on opportunities and social functions. Unemployment and the loss of a work environment, domestic violence, and financial issues are other circumstances that can prompt seclusion.
Isolation can be especially prevalent in the geriatric population. Retirement, declining health, and uninvolved family members can contribute to isolation in the elderly. The elderly population may lack friends and acquaintances, and if they do have them, their friends may rarely call or visit them.
Social isolation may be purposeful and can result when individuals deliberately withdraw themselves from civilization. One may even attempt to rationalize their seclusion by classifying it as pleasurable. There are several reasons why one may isolate themselves from others. People may seclude themselves if they have a health condition or disability due to fear of being stigmatized. Grief, loss, and bereavement can also be reasons for isolating behaviors.
Social isolation can cause depression, anxiety, and emotional duress. Isolation can exacerbate depressive symptoms and mood fluctuations. Social anxiety can develop when one continually avoids socialization opportunities. Relationships with friends and family members can become strained, as frustration arises with the person cutting off contact.
Social isolation can be the outcome of an existing disability, substance abuse, or mental health condition. Individuals that are on the spectrum, or who have a developmental disability may be challenged with social interactions. People with educational and learning disabilities may struggle academically, causing them to feel as if they do not fit in, thus precipitating isolating behaviors. Substance abuse can trigger seclusion, as people will isolate to maintain their addictions. Mental health conditions can also trigger isolation. An individual with a mood disorder may withdraw during a depressive episode, only to re-emerge when the depressive episode concludes. People that are depressed will purposefully withdraw themselves to avoid interacting with others.
There are several ways for individuals that are socially isolated to receive help. Professional counseling services can assist a person to explore and process issues surrounding self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Psychotropic medication may be a valid treatment option to help individuals to alleviate mental health symptoms. Discontinuing isolating behaviors may be difficult, but is critical in overcoming social isolation. Individuals can increase socialization with others by joining a club, engaging in a new hobby, or volunteering. Obtaining a pet can teach a person how to form an emotional connection, which may then make it easier to form one with other people. However one chooses to seek help, it is important to remember that connection with others is necessary to uphold emotional and physical well-being.
Tracy Smith is a Licensed Professional Counselor and employed as a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in the mental health field and has worked in a wide array of settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy has worked with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the resistant adolescent population. Tracy enjoys facilitating groups, coming up with creative interventions, and is interested in creative art therapies, such as sand tray, play therapy, and psychodrama.