When Isolating Yourself Becomes Dangerous

New evidence helps explain the risk of over-isolating yourself.

Posted Aug 29, 2018

Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kristina Tripkovic on Unsplash

With the increasing popularity of online personality tests and the curiosity of finding out what's our Myers-Briggs personality type, society has gained a new understanding of individual differences and the various ways in which people operate. While there are some who feel energized when socializing with others, there are others who feel recharged when they spend time by themselves. 

There's no "right way" or "wrong way," but this post is intended for the latter: those with a tendency to isolate themselves and choose to be physically alone. Believe me, as a fellow plan-canceling aficionada whose ideal Friday night involves staying at home and watching a movie or reading a good book, I completely get it. There's no feeling quite like staying in. 

But, with what frequency are you isolating yourself? How can you know when this is becoming potentially troubling or dangerous? How can this repeated behavior affect your health? How is this related to the feeling of loneliness? 

The Difference Between Isolation and Loneliness

First, let's start by defining key concepts. Isolation is defined as a state or situation characterized by being physically separated from other people—whether intentional or not. Loneliness, on the other hand, is defined by an internal feeling—it's about quality, not quantity.  

In this way, one can socially isolate or separate themselves from other people, but not necessarily feel alone or lonely. In a similar way, one can be surrounded by many people and feel as if they were the only person in the room. Social isolation can be desired or sought out by an individual, but loneliness is normally not a choice. Having said that, how do they relate? 

The Relationship Between Social Isolation and Loneliness

A recent study published in the journal Health Psychology found that both concepts—though normally studied through the lens of how they differ from one another—have an interdependent relationship. What does this mean? That instead of seeing them as isolated concepts, it's better to analyze and study them together, with the goal of understanding our physical and mental health. 

The researchers found that a higher level of social isolation usually produces higher levels of loneliness; high levels of loneliness make people prone to socially isolate themselves, as well. When the two manifest together, a higher risk of mortality is associated. 

These results can give us valuable information about the frequency with which we decide to socially isolate ourselves from others and its effect on our mental health—especially with the copious evidence associating loneliness to several mental health conditions—and our physical health. So, what to do about this? 

Honoring Alone Time While Protecting Health

The positive aspect of these studies is that they offer us a space to act preventively. They give us enough information to develop an action plan. In that vein, here are some tips to make the most of your time alone, without over-doing it: 

  • Give yourself a timeframe. How many outings a month are you comfortable with? For some people, it's 1-2 a month, while for others it can be more. Whatever the time you give yourself, try to keep at it and be patient with yourself. Remind yourself that while nothing is set in stone, it's still important to know yourself and know if you're predisposed to falling in the isolation trap. 
  • Talk to a close friend. My closest friends know exactly when to push me a bit further to socialize with others and when to respect my personal space. This isn't something that was formed overnight; it's a product of years of close dialogue and honest conversations about what I am and am not comfortable with. Talk to a friend who you can trust about all of this so they can help you avoid an isolation trap. 
  • Do something for your community or for others. Volunteering and engaging in selfless activities has been shown to have positive effects on mental health. Whether it's belonging to a group, foundation or a community, think about doing something positive for others as a way to do something positive for yourself. 
  • Enroll in a book or cultural appreciation club. The positive thing about these groups is that the frequency with which they meet is a complete sweet spot: not enough that it might be overwhelming for you, but just enough to keep you interested. If you already enjoy reading, for instance, why not kill two birds with one stone? 

Do you have any other recommendations of things you've done that have helped you minimize your social isolation and loneliness? Please share them in the comment section below!