Isolation is a growing problem for modern society. In America, roughly 40% of people say they feel lonely and/or isolated. This percentage is double the national rate from the 1980s (20%).
Yet isolation does not have to be permanent. There are many ways you can build a social network or strengthen emotional bonds. A therapist can help you identify strategies to best suit your situation.
Therapy can help address the emotional and psychological issues that lead to social isolation. Perhaps you deeply desire human interaction, but you feel unable to connect with others. You may fear rejection or lack social skills that simplify conversations. In such cases, therapy would likely focus on building social skills. Therapy can also treat symptoms of anxiety or depression that may be holding you back.
Not all people who become isolated have a mental health issue. You could become isolated from your old social network after a life transition. Perhaps you got a divorce or you moved to a new city for a job. Therapy can treat any fear, shame, or loss you may feel. It can also help you find ways to socialize despite any logistic barriers (such as chronic illness).
If you have a social network, but you still feel “alone” inside, you may be experiencing emotional isolation. A therapist can teach you how to connect emotionally with others. They may address any underlying abandonment issues. In fact, the therapeutic process itself provides an opportunity to establish trust with and experience the emotional support of another person.
Anyone can become isolated. Understanding what’s behind the isolation can help. For example, if you lack a social network, your first step will likely be to find a community. You may try joining a group of people with similar interests, such as a book club. Volunteering or taking a class can also connect you to a community. Support groups can be especially helpful if your isolation stems from a mental health condition.
But what if you have friends or family, and you still feel alone or misunderstood? Isolation can happen even when a person has lots of social connections. Some strategies that may help include:
- Spend less time on social media, and instead invite social media friends to in-person outings.
- Commit to calling or texting a loved one each day.
- If you feel isolated with kids at home, ask a friend or family member for help with childcare. Even an hour of "adult time" each week can help ward off loneliness.
- Tell loved ones how you feel. You may find that what you thought was a deliberate snub was actually a lapse in communication.
No matter why you feel isolated, therapy can help. A therapist can work with you to devise social connection strategies that work with your lifestyle and values. The right therapist can also help you address loneliness in family and romantic relationships. By listening without judgment and offering support, a therapist can begin to counteract feelings of isolation.
- Fear of Abandonment: Tiana, 24, describes herself as "alone in the world." She reports that people like her, but says she has nothing in common with anyone. She soothes her loneliness with television and her pet cats. A therapist helps her uncover deep fears of abandonment, which Tiana can trace to her childhood. Through therapy and a support group recommended by her therapist, Tiana is able to manage her anxiety about meeting new people. She begins to form a few close friendships with other women in the support group. This social support network in turn provides the comfort and security Tiana needs to continue building new relationships.
- Feelings of Superiority: Tim, 37, finds it very hard to keep a friendship going for more than a few months. He reports that he gets along very well with other people at first, but eventually his friends stop calling him and don’t return his texts, and Tim doesn’t know why. The therapist encourages Tim to talk about the most important relationships he has lost. Together they discover his former friends did in fact tell Tim their reasons for ending their relationship. The therapist helps Tim begin to uncover some distorted beliefs about himself. Specifically, Tim considers himself smarter and more important than other people, and he shows little concern for others. Under these beliefs, therapy reveals a deep sense of shame, which Tim masks through self-aggrandizing behaviors. Tim works on building empathy: first for himself and then for others. This empathy guides him to a healthier self-image and better relationships.
- De Jong Gierveld, J., Van Tilburg, T., Dykstra, P. A. (2006). Loneliness and Social Isolation. In Vangelisti, A. and Perlman, D (Eds), Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships. (pp. 485-500). Retrieved from http://www.iscet.pt/sites/default/files/obsolidao/Artigos/Loneliness%20and%20Social%20Isolation.pdf
- Hawthorne, G., PhD. (2008). Perceived social isolation in a community sample: Its prevalence and correlates with aspects of peoples' lives. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 43(2), 140-50. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00127-007-0279-8
- Khullar, D. (2016, December 22). How social isolation is killing us. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/22/upshot/how-social-isolation-is-killing-us.html
- Polack, E. (2018, May 1). New Cigna study reveals loneliness at epidemic levels in America. Retrieved from https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america