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Isolation—the experience of being separated from others—may result from being physically removed from others, as when a person lives in a remote area, or it can result from the perception of being removed from a community, such as when a person feels socially or emotionally isolated from others. Social isolation is distinct from the experience of solitude, which is simply the state of being alone, usually by choice. Taking time to be alone can be a healthy, rejuvenating experience that allows us to reconnect with our own needs, goals, beliefs, values, and feelings. But when a person experiences too much solitude or feels socially isolated from others, he or she may develop feelings of loneliness, social anxiety, helplessness, or depression, among others.
Spending time alone is a good thing, and some people require more solitude than others. Introverts, for example, enjoy spending lots of time alone and can feel drained through social interaction, whereas extroverts prefer the company of others and are recharged through social interaction.
Social isolation—the absence of social relationships—is typically considered unhealthy when people spend excessive time alone, particularly when they no longer benefit from time spent alone. Socially isolating oneself can mean staying home for days, not talking with friends or acquaintances, and generally avoiding contact with other people. Any form of contact, however limited, is likely to remain superficial and brief, while more meaningful, extended relationships are missing.
Social isolation, in turn, can exacerbate a person’s feelings of low self-worth, shame, loneliness, depression, and other mental health concerns. Thus, social isolation can be both a cause and symptom of other mental health issues. Isolation itself is not a diagnosis, but it can be a symptom of depression, social anxiety, or agoraphobia. Other conditions that impair social skills can lead to isolation, though not necessarily by choice.
Emotional isolation can occur as a result of social isolation, or when a person lacks any close confidant or intimate partner. Even though relationships are necessary for our well-being, they can trigger negative feelings and thoughts, and emotional isolation can act as a defense mechanism to protect a person from emotional distress. When people are emotionally isolated, they keep their feelings completely to themselves, are unable to receive emotional support from others, feel “shut down” or numb, and are reluctant or unwilling to communicate with others, except perhaps for the most superficial matters.
Emotional isolation can occur within an intimate relationship, particularly as a result of infidelity, abuse, or other trust issues. One or both partners may feel alone within the relationship, rather than supported and fulfilled. Identifying the source of the distress and working with a therapist to improve communication and rebuild trust can help couples re-establish their emotional bond.
Therapy can help address the emotional and psychological issues that lead to isolating behaviors. Sometimes isolation is not a matter of choice; some people may report wanting to have friends and engage emotionally, but are unable to do so out of fear or because they do not know how to proceed. In addition, many people battle a sense of isolation during major life transitions, such as when someone loses an intimate partner or close confidant, and others may experience isolation simply because they are physically isolated by living in remote areas. In any case, feelings of isolation can be severely distressing, and therapy can help a person develop social skills and learn to manage symptoms. In fact, the therapeutic process itself provides an opportunity to establish trust with and experience the emotional support of another person, all of which will help a person to live a less isolated existence.
Last updated: 09-30-2014