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Isolation, loneliness, and mental health

Reviewed by Diane Warns, PT

Woman sitting in profile alone and upset

What is social isolation?

Being alone in solitude can be greatly beneficial, giving someone time to relax and recharge. However, too much time alone can be harmful to your mental health. Solitude taken to extremes is called social isolation.

Some common symptoms associated with social isolation include:

  • Turning down opportunities to socialize
  • Agreeing to plans and then canceling them last minute
  • Not having anyone you would identify as a close friend
  • Experiencing extreme anxiety when socializing or preparing to socialize
  • Feeling down or depressed when alone
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Only interacting with people on a regular basis out of necessity (e.g., coworkers or roommates)
  • Limiting social interactions to those transactional in nature (e.g., thanking the food delivery driver when they bring your dinner)

Isolation, solitude, and loneliness: What’s the difference?

Isolation, solitude, and loneliness often exist together, but they aren’t the same. Social isolation refers to a lack of social interactions, relationships, and human contact. Loneliness can be a result of social isolation, but people can also feel lonely when surrounded by people. 

Solitude refers to the state of being alone. We all experience solitude and often crave alone time. However, frequent, unwanted solitude could be a sign of social isolation. 

What causes isolation?

Isolation can happen to anyone. Some common circumstances that can increase a person’s risk for social isolation include:

  • Age: Older individuals are more likely to experience isolating risk factors, such as living alone, the loss of a partner, hearing loss, and dementia.
  • Family disconnection: This can be from divorce, distance, and other relationship issues.
  • Moving: Moving to a new place away from friends and family or moving to a remote location can lead to isolation. 
  • Job or school changes: Losing a job, switching jobs, and switching schools can cause people to feel lonely and struggle to meet new people. 
  • Lack of income: Lack of income can result in a lack of accessibility to education, social networks, and family stability, leading to increased isolation. 
  • Prejudice and marginalization: Groups that are often excluded because of their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. are more likely to experience social isolation. 
  • Physical disabilities: Vision and hearing loss, disabilities involving appearance, and physical impairments that limit mobility can contribute to social isolation.
  • Lack of accessibility: Language barriers, cultural challenges, and economic difficulties can fuel isolation. 
  • Loss of community: This can occur with retirement, moving away to school, and other life transitions. 
  • Domestic violence: Abusers often attempt to isolate their victims as a way to control them. Fear of retaliation may prevent victims from reaching out for help.
  • Trauma and grief: Isolation can occur after a traumatic event or after the loss of a friend or family member. 
  • Mental illnesses: Isolation can be a symptom of certain mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression. 
  • Mental health stigma: The stigma surrounding mental illness can make it difficult for people struggling with their mental health to reach out to friends and family, resulting in self-isolation. 

Social isolation and the COVID-19 pandemic

Social isolation can be a result of physical distancing, as we are currently experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic. For much of the pandemic, staying home and social distancing has been necessary for everyone’s safety. This led to canceled sporting events, concerts, and other gatherings. It also changed the way we work, receive an education, and socialize with others. While some people were able to transition into working from home, others have lost their jobs. 

With these changes, people were suddenly forced to spend much more time alone than they may have before, and mental health concerns increased.1 This has led to more people feeling lonely and becoming at risk for isolation. 

The effects of loneliness and isolation

How loneliness affects your mental health

Loneliness and isolation can lead to negative psychological effects. Chronic loneliness may increase your risk for several mental health concerns including:

How loneliness affects your physical health

Isolation and loneliness not only affect mental health but a person’s physical health as well. The link between isolation and some serious medical conditions isn’t entirely understood. However, chronic loneliness and isolation have been shown to increase a person’s risk for:

  • Heart problems
  • Stroke
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Lowered immunity
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Dementia
  • Substance abuse
  • Sedentary behavior
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Overeating or under-eating

Overcoming loneliness

How to combat loneliness

Loneliness can be a distressing feeling and can occur even when surrounded by other people. However, there are some things you can do that might help to combat loneliness and prevent social isolation. These include:

  • Practicing relaxation: Experiment with ways to relax yourself both physically and mentally. Gentle exercise, yoga, and walks outside can get your body moving and calm your mind. 
  • Maintaining self-care: This includes eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting enough sleep and exercise each day to help improve mental health. 
  • Creating a routine: A regular routine can help someone establish a sense of normalcy and give purpose to the day.
  • Celebrating self-discovery: Loneliness can be seen as a positive opportunity to discover oneself, new ideas, and personal strengths. 
  • Being mindful of numbing behaviors: Behaviors such as overeating, shopping, excessive social media use, and excessive daydreaming are sometimes used to numb feelings, which can worsen mental health concerns. 
  • Staying connected: This might involve investing in existing relationships or forming new and meaningful connections by joining groups and communities with shared interests. 

Seek professional help

Not everyone who is lonely needs the help of a therapist, but loneliness may cause, exacerbate, or be symptomatic of certain mental health issues. A therapist can help you address feelings of loneliness using a range of techniques such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of talk therapy that is used to help alter thinking patterns and decrease negative thoughts. CBT can help treat loneliness by addressing maladaptive social cognition, which involves negative thoughts about oneself and how others perceive them. CBT can also address concerns such as depression and anxiety that may be contributing to feelings of loneliness. 
  • Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy helps individuals confront and accept their fears in a safe environment. This can include encouraging a person to imagine their fears or actually exposing them to their fears. Using exposure therapy, a therapist can help gradually reintroduce someone to the social situations that they may avoid due to social anxiety. 
  • Mindfulness-based therapies: Mindfulness involves bringing nonjudgmental awareness to the thoughts and feelings. This can include practices like meditation, deep breathing, and yoga. Mindfulness helps build acceptance skills which are important in combating loneliness and improving social function. Through acceptance skills, a person can learn to be more open with the present moment and reduce feelings of anxiety. 
  • Medications: Certain medications can be given to help address other underlying mental health concerns that may be causing isolation, such as anxiety or depression.

If you are struggling with loneliness or symptoms of social isolation, help is available. A professional therapist can help you address the root cause of your symptoms, manage feelings of loneliness, and improve socially isolating thoughts and behaviors. Find a therapist near you today

About the author

The editorial team at works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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