When life gets overwhelming, and we begin to feel burnt out, whether from work, friendships, spouses, or an imbalance in our mental and physical health—we resort to isolation. Needing time alone is normal and healthy; however, too much alone time can be harmful. Solitude can quickly settle into social isolation when we get too comfortable to notice or do anything about it.
What Is Social Isolation?
Social isolation is when you are intentionally void of social interaction or contact. Social isolation and loneliness are commonly confused, but they are different. Someone can feel and experience loneliness while still being around people or in touch with them, while social isolation is the total absence of social interaction.
It’s common for people to isolate themselves when experiencing health problems, a lack or loss of mobility, disabilities, unemployment, or mental illness. Social isolation is one of the most common side effects of depression, also called a major depressive disorder. Studies show that loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher risks for health problems such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, weakened immune function, and cognitive decline.
Another reason people isolate themselves is to give themselves a break from their busy lives and allow time to reset. While some people can’t wait to get back into the social scene and spend time with their loved ones, others continue to enjoy their solitude. The danger of privacy is how quickly it can turn into social isolation.
How Social Isolation Affects Mental Health
When solitude turns into social isolation, feelings of loneliness begin to creep up along with depression. Major depressive disorder is common in those who isolate themselves from their friends, family, and any possible social interaction. Spending every day in your home can be draining as it becomes a consistent routine.
Yale University psychology professor, Laurie Santos, discusses in an article, “some surveys reveal that around 60 percent of people in the U.S. right now report feeling lonely on a pretty regular basis.” Social connection plays a significant role in survival and contributes to a longer life span. Having a community—family, friends, or romantic relationships—that you can depend on and receive support from is imperative for your overall health and well-being.
Not only is social isolation linked to depression, but it is also commonly associated with suicidal ideation, sleeping problems, lack of motivation and awareness, as well as increased stress and anxiety. Isolating yourself from human interaction and the outside world will only add to your mental or physical battle. Your reason for separating yourself in the first place will gradually worsen by keeping yourself inside those four walls. Finding ways to overcome social isolation after recognizing the problem will help combat those feelings of loneliness.
Ways to Overcome Social Isolation
When learning to cope with social isolation and unhealthy tendencies, it’s crucial not to rush yourself. You don’t have to do everything all at once or every single day, but when you feel the urge to isolate yourself and can’t pull yourself out of isolation, these are some healthy ways to help you out of that place.
Acknowledge How You’re Feeling
When you’re alone, you’re either overthinking too much or doing everything you can to ignore those thoughts and feelings. By stuffing your feelings and never sorting them out, you’re only piling on to make an even bigger mess. Acknowledging your feelings and accepting them for what they are is critical to the healing process.
Isolation will often lead to a lack of self-care in many different areas. You might’ve stopped doing the things that make you feel happy or good about yourself. Implementing self-care into your daily routine will flip your perspective and how you think about your life.
Self-care is anything that you enjoy and makes you feel better about yourself. Going for a walk, taking a hot bath, reading a book, exercising, going to the beach or to the park, meditation, or even listening to your favorite music are all forms of self-care.
Spending time outdoors is essential for your mental and physical health. Our bodies naturally produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, so it is encouraged to go outside and get some fresh air. Vitamin D plays a role in mood regulation and reducing negative emotions. An increase in vitamin D can also improve symptoms of major depressive disorder.
Reach Out to Your Loved Ones
In social isolation, it’s common to assume that no one misses you and is doing better without you, but that’s not true. Loneliness will try to convince you that you’re better off alone and will fill your mind with negative thoughts—this is also a common side effect of depression and anxiety.
Confronting the family and friends you cut off can be distressing, not knowing how they will respond, but you’ll never honestly understand how they feel unless you reach out. Be open and transparent with them about how you’re feeling, and you might be surprised by the response you get. In an article on Psychology Today, Guy Winch, Ph.D., advises other options for making connections, for example, volunteering, doing community service, or an activity you enjoy—all of these being ways to meet new people if you’re looking to step outside of your usual circle.
Reclaim Your Life
Once you acknowledge how you feel and have been living, you begin to accept that there is a better, more fulfilling life for you. Practicing self-care, spending time outdoors, and reconnecting with your family and friends are all significant steps when overcoming social isolation. Picking yourself up from the couch or out of bed to do even one of these is something you should be proud of for yourself. It’s not always easy to do things for yourself, but it’s essential for your health and well-being.
Take ownership of your life by practicing all these things; slowly but surely, you will overcome social isolation. The desire to get back into the world will become natural when surrounded by people who love and support you no matter what. Suddenly you’ll begin to recognize new passions—new hobbies you want to try, places you want to visit, foods you want to try, or communities you want to join.
- National Institute on Aging, 2021. Loneliness and Social Isolation–Tips for Staying Connected.
- PBS News, 2023. Why Americans are lonelier and its effects on our health.
- Psychology Today, 2013. Why Loneliness Is a Trap and How to Break Free.