Social isolation, in a nutshell, means your social network is limited and unfulfilling. If you feel isolated, there’s a lot you can do to reshape your social circle and enjoy meaningful connections with others.
You can think of social isolation as a state of detachment, one where you lack social bonds or ties.
Anyone can become isolated. To put it another way, isolation often has nothing to do with your character, charisma, or other personality traits.
Perhaps you’re recovering after pregnancy and childbirth, and you don’t talk to anyone besides your partner, most days. Or maybe you moved to a new city a few weeks ago. You’ve met plenty of people, but you don’t know any of them well yet. You might also feel isolated in other circumstances:
- retiring after 20 years at the same job
- breaking up with your partner of several years and feeling as if you’ve lost all your mutual friends
- starting a new job where you don’t know anyone, or any of the office traditions
- leaving home to start college
Isolation isn’t the same thing as loneliness, a feeling where you long for social contact. Loneliness may happen as a natural consequence of isolation, of course, but you can have a thriving network of friends and loved ones and still feel lonely from time to time.
Still, like loneliness, isolation can have a far-reaching impact on your overall well-being. Read on to learn a few signs of social isolation to pay attention to, how it might affect your everyday life, and what you can do forge new bonds.
Due to the rise of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become pretty common for some people to spend entire days at home in solitude.
So, how do you tell the difference between social isolation and everyday life in the digital age?
Isolation is somewhat relative, but researchers generally consider signs like:
- Relationship status: Are you married? Dating? Or happily single?
- Community participation: Do you belong to any clubs or sports teams? Are you a member of a religious group, like a church or temple?
- Number of close contacts: Do you trust at least a few people enough to house-sit when you leave town, bring you groceries when you get sick, or confide in after a bad breakup?
- Frequency of contact: Do you talk with your friends and family on a regular basis?
- Overall quality of relationships: Do you feel like the people in your life respect and care about you?
You may have thousands of Twitter followers, a large group of classmates you spend time with, or a whole Brady Bunch of a family tree. But you might still be socially isolated if you have a hard time connecting because you:
- feel like an outsider
- believe no one knows the real you
- worry that everyone in your life considers you a burden
- go days or weeks without having a meaningful conversation with anyone
Isolation vs. introversion
The structure of society means some groups of people are more vulnerable to isolation than others. At-risk groups include:
- Older adults: As people age, their social circles often grow smaller due to retirement, an empty nest, and the loss of older family members. Ageism can further restrict how much older adults participate in community events.
- Marginalized groups: People who regularly face stigma and discrimination may have a smaller pool of social contacts they feel emotionally safe with. Some social circles may exclude them by default.
- People with disabilities: Even with anti-discrimination laws in place, many people with disabilities, especially those who use wheelchairs, have trouble finding accessible transportation — which can seriously limit their ability to socialize in-person.
- People in remote locations: Military service members, airline pilots, and other people who spend long periods of time away from home can begin to feel disconnected from their loved ones. People living in rural areas may also have a hard time forming a robust social circle.
- Immunocompromised people: According to a 2022 study, many immunocompromised people feel locked out of public life now that much of the public has stopped using masks and other key COVID-19 precautions. In short, they can’t participate in everyday social activities without risking their health.
Social isolation can have major consequences for both physical and mental health.
Your social life can affect your physical health for two main reasons.
First, isolation can make it less likely you’ll take care of yourself, since no one else offers support or motivation. According to the
- eat fewer fruits and vegetables
- get less physical activity
- check in with healthcare professionals less often
Isolation can also increase stress and inflammation. From an evolutionary perspective, being alone makes you vulnerable to predators and accidents. If you don’t have anyone to watch your back, then you have to stay constantly alert, which uses up precious mental and physical energy.
The less socially connected you are, the harder it becomes for your body to weather the wear and tear of chronic stress. Your inflammation levels rise as a result, which can damage your body’s cells and potentially contribute to health issues.
Isolation can also have a profound effect on your mental health. A
- increased work-related stress
- higher levels of substance use
- decreased satisfaction with life overall
As mentioned above, humans need company to help keep their stress levels in check. Without company, you may grow anxious or mistrustful of the world around you. A 2019 study found a lack of social stimulation can prompt your brain to become hypersensitive to sensory information, like the sound of doors opening. You may find that everyday sights and sounds now put you on edge.
Human contact also helps you maintain a sense of reality. Your sense of self is defined, in part, by how you interact with others. Without anyone to witness or react to your actions, you may start to feel like nothing you do matters. You may wonder where reality ends and your imagination begins.
Research from 2020 examining the impact of solitary confinement for people in correctional facilities found intense isolation can cause:
- loss of identity
- thoughts of suicide
Granted, most people won’t ever experience the total isolation of solitary confinement. However, long-term social isolation can still lead to many of these symptoms, even without complete solitude.
Having thoughts of suicide?
If you’re thinking about suicide, you’re not alone. You can get compassionate, confidential support from trained crisis counselors by calling 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Helpline.
Prefer to connect over text? Text “HOME” to 741-741 to reach a crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line.
You can connect with these free helplines at any time: 24/7, 365 days a year.
In some cases, social isolation may happen as a sign of abuse. A romantic partner or caregiver may try to control you by limiting your contact with the world outside the relationship. This isolation ensures you depend on them and only them for all your needs, which gives them extensive power and control over your life.
Signs someone may be trying to isolate you include:
- They pick fights with friends and family members, then encourage you to cut off the people who offended them as a show of loyalty.
- They spread gossip about you online or to your friends and loved ones to ruin your reputation.
- They gaslight you into getting angry or upset in public so that you seem like the “abusive” one.
- They prevent you from finding or keeping a job by sabotaging interviews, hiding your car keys, or making a scene at your workplace.
- They insist on having access to your mail, phone, and email at all times to monitor your communication.
- They get clingy when you’re apart and try to call or text you nonstop. They may get angry or accuse you of betrayal if you don’t respond right away.
Isolation can happen for many reasons, so some coping strategies may work better for your unique circumstances than others.
A few strategies to consider:
If you’ve moved far away from loved ones, face-to-face time can become sparse. But thanks to technological advances, you can stay connected through text, email, and video calls.
Research involving older adults in long-term care facilities found even a 5-minute weekly video call with loved ones may significantly reduce loneliness and help people feel more emotionally supported.
Find a fur friend
Pet ownership can go a long way toward
Animals don’t just offer unconditional companionship, they often also make great icebreakers — something you might already know, if you’ve ever visited a dog park.
Explore new communities
Not all friendships and relationships can be salvaged. Maybe you serve as the family scapegoat, most of the people in your friend group regularly make homophobic remarks, or your partner consistently puts you down.
Sometimes, cutting ties with toxic people can do a lot of good for your mental health. If your current social network mistreats you, rest assured that other people out in the world will value and accept you as yourself. It may take some time to find them, but starting that search is an important first step.
Making the first overtures toward friendship could help you form new connections more easily.
Consider joining a pen pal program, mentorship group, or community center to reach out to other isolated people around the world.
You can also begin to grow your social circle by volunteering. According to one 2018 study, volunteering in itself can offer an effective way to expand your social network, especially when mourning the loss of a loved one.
Temporary isolation usually won’t have long-term consequences for your physical or mental well-being, and you can often take steps to manage it on your own.
That said, you may start to notice some effects after weeks or months of isolation. It may be worth considering professional support if you:
- feel intense loneliness most or all of the time
- believe you’re unlovable and don’t deserve companionship
- feel incredibly nervous when you talk to people
- mistrust people by default, even when someone has given you no reason to suspect them
- go out of your way to avoid social interactions and dread the few that are necessary to live your life
A compassionate therapist can help identify possible triggers and work to address both isolation and its impact on your health. Goals of therapy may include:
- improving your self-esteem
- learning and practicing skills to communicate and resolve conflict more effectively
- addressing underlying social anxiety or depression
- processing any trauma that may have triggered isolation, such as bullying or abuse
Your social ties play an important role in your physical health and emotional well-being.
It may not always feel easy to form new friendships and relationships, especially when coping with life changes, health challenges, and other stressful or overwhelming circumstances.
But pursuing just a few social connections can make a big difference. If you’re not sure how to get started, a therapist can offer more guidance and support.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.