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Some people use the words “isolation” and “loneliness” interchangeably, but this does not reflect the true meaning of each term. Isolation may lead to loneliness, and in some cases, loneliness may exacerbate isolation. Both have been found to occur with other mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
Knowing how loneliness and isolation are distinct and related can help people who struggle with them best address and work through these issues. Here are a few things to know about handling loneliness and social isolation in your life.
The Difference Between Isolation and Loneliness
Social isolation occurs when a person has little or no contact with other people. It can occur over long or short periods of time and is a distinctly physical state. Isolation specifically may be characterized by:
- Staying home most or all of the time
- Refusing interpersonal interaction
- Avoiding social situations
Isolation can have many negative emotional effects, including increased sadness, restlessness, and loneliness. While isolation can cause loneliness, the two don’t always occur together. People may find themselves socially isolated regularly as a side effect of an isolating mental health issue such as social anxiety or agoraphobia. For example, someone with agoraphobia may feel too anxious to leave their house on some days.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is an emotional state. It’s defined as feeling alone or separate from others, or as feeling empty. Loneliness may accompany social isolation but can be caused by other things, including breakups or divorce, moving to a new location, or the death of a close friend or loved one. Someone who has difficulty making friends may also experience frequent loneliness. In the case of mental health, loneliness can accompany depression, anxiety, and many addictions and phobias.
Does Isolation Cause Loneliness?
There are some cases in which isolation can lead to loneliness. Sometimes not being around others for long periods of time can make people feel intensely alone. For example, if someone works from home, they may spend all day alone in their house without much social contact, in which case they may experience feelings of loneliness. Bullying or the experience of being alienated from a social group is also likely to bring about feelings of loneliness.
Loneliness can sometimes lead to isolation. People who feel lonely for long periods of time may have a hard time engaging with others in social situations. If it seems too difficult to reach out to others or if a fear of rejection has taken hold, people may isolate themselves to deal with their loneliness. The isolation-loneliness cycle often feeds into itself but does not offer respite or relief to the people stuck in it.
In some cases, isolation and feelings of loneliness may occur simultaneously without one being caused by the others. This typically means that other social, psychological, or mental health-related factors may be involved.
How Isolation and Loneliness Affect Mental Health
Isolation has been shown in studies to affect people with mental health issues. In some cases, such as when people have anxiety or depression, isolation can aggravate what may already feel like an intense symptom. This could be particularly true when the depression and anxiety are usually alleviated by social contact.
Prolonged loneliness can even lead to health problems. Too much time alone has been shown to impact cognitive development in young people and lead to poor physical health habits. Sometimes feeling lonely for a long time can make people feel that taking care of themselves isn’t worth the effort, and they may give up eating well or exercising.
Some other effects of isolation and loneliness to look out for may include:
Loneliness may accompany social isolation but can be caused by other things, including breakups or divorce, moving to a new location, or the death of a close friend or loved one.
- Risk-taking behavior
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- Increased stress
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Altered brain function
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior
When Isolation and Loneliness Are Symptoms
Sometimes loneliness and/or isolation present as primary symptoms of a mental health issue. For example, if someone suddenly begins to pull away from friends and family, this could indicate that a number of potential issues. They could have depression or an eating disorder, or they may be affected by an abusive relationship. Isolation may be a first sign of many mental health issues, so identifying the unique context of each situation is key in order to understand it.
Loneliness and isolation can be symptoms of the following mental health issues, among others:
Risk Factors for Isolation and Loneliness
Just as with any other issue, some people may be more susceptible to isolation and loneliness than others, although anyone can become isolated or feel lonely. People who have recently had traumatic life changes, who live in tumultuous home environments, or who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence or abuse may be more prone to both loneliness and isolation.
For example, a person who’s recently been divorced and has moved to a new neighborhood may feel the absence of their former partner and community, causing them to be lonely. Additionally, an elderly person whose spouse has died may be isolated in their day-to-day life, which may lead to loneliness and poor health.
People who live in abusive homes may isolate themselves because the shame of their environment makes them think they can’t talk with others about their life. They may also feel intensely lonely if they become worried no one will be able to relate to their life experiences.
If you’re feeling lonely or experience isolation for long periods of time, it may help to reach out to a licensed mental health professional who can offer support as you work through those struggles. Not addressing prolonged loneliness and isolation can negatively impact your physical and mental well-being.
If there is a deeper mental health issue causing your feelings of loneliness or isolation, a therapist can help treat that issue and put you on the path to your best self. Remember that you are not alone and there is never shame in asking for help.
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- Hawthorne, G. (2008). Perceived social isolation in a community sample: Its prevalence and correlates with aspects of peoples’ lives. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 43(2), 140-150. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-007-0279-8
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- Stickley, A., Koyanagi, A., Koposov, R., Schwab-Stone, M., & Ruchkin, V. (2014). Loneliness and health risk behaviours among Russian and U.S. adolescents: A cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health, 14, 366. Retrieved from http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2458/14/366
- What is loneliness doing to your brain? (2018, June 27). Retrieved from https://www.seeker.com/videos/health/what-is-loneliness-doing-to-your-brain
- Williams, Y. (n.d.). Social isolation: Definition, causes, and effects. Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/social-isolation-definition-causes-effects.html
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