Social withdrawal and isolation because of depression or stress – and what to do about it.

Social withdrawal, isolation and loneliness.

Social withdrawal is often a common sign of depression. Social withdrawal might sound harmless, but it’s unreasonably dangerous when we look at the consequences.

Social aspects matter plenty since we’re very social creatures. We’re social to the degree where loneliness seems a risk factor for early death. That’s one side of it; let’s start there to get the contrast. The CDC tells us: “Loneliness and social isolation in older adults are serious public health risks affecting a significant number of people in the United States and putting them at risk for dementia and other serious medical conditions. A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) points out that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. Older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss. Loneliness is the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact. Social isolation is a lack of social connections. Social isolation can lead to loneliness in some people, while others can feel lonely without being socially isolated. Although it’s hard to measure social isolation and loneliness precisely (subjective!), there is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk.

Recent studies found that:

  • Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
  • Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
  • Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
  • Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
  • Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.”

Social isolation even makes us more stupid, as can be read in “Social isolation during COVID-19 lockdown impairs cognitive function”. That might explain some of the cognitive troubles loneliness gives us over time. If we can see a difference from just the lock-downs during the pandemic, decades are sure to make a bigger impact. If weeks and months make people perform worse at cognitive functions such as basic problem-solving, learning new tasks, memory recall, and time estimation, years can’t be good… We’ve known that our mind relies on social connections to function properly for quite some time. Isolation is a punishment in jail for a reason. People prefer to be among rapists and murderers, rather than with themselves. It seems as if face-to-face contact cradles our mental and emotional health. It is necessary for our brains to function properly.

Webcam meetings feel worse because they are. We perform worse. We think worse.

So to just put it simply: if you lack the social aspects you need, you’ll get miserable, since we’re made to be social – but you’ll also get worse health. Back to the point, “a healthy man wants a thousand things and a sick man only one”. We’ve noticed how affected people get during the pandemic by being more isolated, controlled, and less social. It wears people down.

Well, to look at the other side of the same coin. To underline that sharing is caring and social aspects are lovely and helpful, it’s said that shared sorrow is split in half and shared happiness is doubled. To be honest, those numbers are slightly off. According to an old study in New England: if you’ve got a close friend within 1.6 km or 1 mile and you’re getting happier, there’s a 63% chance that the friend will get more content. So perhaps one could say that shared happiness is, on average, joy multiplied by ~1.63..? In this case, speaking of the pandemic, contagious is a good thing. It even seemed as if it could be contagious several steps after the first one even though those people don’t even know you – but they know the one who got happier when you got happier. So the happiness seems to be able to spread, which makes it a tiny bit your responsibility to do your best to be happy to make others happy.

The study was made on people in real life, in contrast to the online lives people have today, but this fact seems to be contagious on the internet and through social channels as well – as long as you keep to positive things. News about bombs, misery and the plague are unlikely to make you happier, but reading, sharing, and discussing things that bring joy will bring joy – on the net or otherwise. Surprise!

Mirror neurons could be another reason why happiness should be contagious. Sure, suppose you and someone else smile at each other. In that case, you’ll feel as if you’re connected and belong together, you agree, and you’re happy with each other – but with the mirror neurons, it’ll work even by just looking at others who are happy, regardless of if you care about them or not. When people do something, you’ll mimic them – and smiling signaled for happiness in the brain, remember? Just the act itself. The mirror neurons make children imitate grown-ups when they’re trying to learn about the world, but we keep them and a tiny bit of the function throughout life. Watch happy people, be with happy people, and you might get a bit happier. Contagious! 

Connection, belonging, agreeing on things, and acknowledging people’s existence by looking them in the eyes so you truly see them might give satisfying results, just as smiling since the social aspect is vital for us. Now we’re at looking people in the eyes, which is very rarely one-sided. How do you look someone in the eyes without them looking back and giving you the same thing? Unless it’s a fight. Don’t get into those. That’s rarely something that brings you happiness.

Be social.

Doing otherwise is dangerous.

“When we’re clinically depressed, there’s a very strong urge to pull away from others and to shut down.”

“It turns out to be the exact opposite of what we need.”

“In depression, social isolation typically serves to worsen the illness and how we feel.”

“Social withdrawal amplifies the brain’s stress response. Social contact helps put the brakes on it.”

– Stephen Ilardi, author of The Depression Cure and associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas.

Why do we isolate ourselves?

One theory as to why we get depressed is for it to actually depress us, as a sort of hibernation. The point and the plan are to depress you enough to withdraw from others and rest. If you’re in an environment good enough to thrive, you’re likely not depressed. If you’re in an unfit environment, you get depressed – and then you withdraw, escape, rest, and hide.

So, could there be some underlying mechanism of depression itself where isolation is the plan?

Could it be that you’re just too tired of lying about how you are, so you avoid everyone to avoid the question?

Could it be that you’re feeling boring, dull, and meaningless?

Perhaps you don’t want to waste their time with your meaningless presence where you’ve got nothing but morbidity and negativity to offer?

There are plenty of reasons. Can you answer this yourself? Your answer might matter more than the general ones – and it could be helpful to know it if you want to change the situation.

Anxiety and low self-esteem often make you want to isolate yourself.

Social withdrawal causes more of the same, more anxiety, and lower self-esteem.

Around and around it goes.

Social withdrawal
Some would prefer to just hide when they’re depressed. But that’s rarely helpful…

Handling your wish to isolate yourself

Avoiding isolation would be the easy answer and a big part of the truth, but perhaps slightly too concise.

Some people benefit from mapping out their relationships to then experiment with more or less interaction with people. If you’re prone to isolating yourself, scheduling social activities is essential to make them happen. But what do you tell people? Who do you tell what? You ought to say the right things to the right people, of course. Everyone doesn’t matter to you. Everyone shouldn’t matter. You can’t care equally about everyone.

Some general guidelines about who to tell what about the depressive miseries and your will to isolate yourself:

Partners ought to know. Share, involve and help each other out. But don’t let your depression crush the one you love. Let them have their life. You are two people with two lives, though you share them. Both of those lives shouldn’t get crushed under one depression.

Close friends should care. If they do care, sharing is a good idea. Tell them about your situation – and ask for help with whatever you could need help with. If you are prone to isolation, ask them to help you avoid it when you’ve got a moment of clarity. When you meet, it could be helpful to talk about the suffering, emotions, what’s happening and whatever might be relevant. But don’t stay there. When you do have the support of friends, do what you can to achieve something you want. Seize the moment. Act towards whatever you want and do fun stuff. That ought to be far more manageable when you’ve got some support.

Shallow friends could be a good, amusing company. Do you feel comfortable sharing? Do so. Perhaps you could avoid some of the gory details… or you could avoid talking about it at all. This sort of company could be perfect for avoiding the subject. It’s not helpful to always identify as the depressed one and dwell on that with everyone. These guys, the shallow friends, could be amusement and distraction – without ever touching on deep thoughts and “oh, but you’re so x, so perhaps…?”

The sunshine and puppies-kind of people could be either great to hang around because it rubs off on you… or you could get provoked. If you do have friends like these, give it a shot to be with them. If it helps, they are likely even better than shallow contact with ordinary people… If you get annoyed by their happiness, this isn’t very helpful. On the other hand, if you work on the mindfulness parts and try to change things, you could relearn and perhaps become more like them if you’re willing to try. Sharing here depends on how close the relationships are and what kind of person they are. Generally, I’d say these guys are as helpful as they’re cheerful. Unless it’s a facade, that is. If they’re the sad clown, things get more complicated. On the other hand, that could also be a perfect situation. They’re actually feeling under the weather, but they do smile and activate themselves well enough for you to think they’re the happiest people around. That means it’s possible. Perhaps that’s an even better reason for you to tag along and learn?

Energy thieves ought to be avoided. That’s always the case if you’re smart, even if you’re healthy. Even more so now.

Work-related relationships are tricky. Here you’re often left to the facade. This could be dependent on what you work with, of course. If it’s bad enough, where you can’t work, you’re bound to tell someone. But sometimes, it’s more or less up to you to do your job. Face it till you make it. Sometimes you’ll fail, and sometimes you’ll do just fine. When you do fail – break down, because that’s okay – and then get up again. That’s life. Face it again, hopefully better this time, and then get back at it. This is behavioral activation at its best UNLESS you’re suffering more from your workplace than you should endure. A catastrophic situation isn’t necessarily something worth enduring and just accepting. In some cases, leaving is the better option.

If you use this and start communicating better with those who matter, that could be tremendously helpful. It’ll be beneficial in the relationship itself with what happens and what you do, but it’ll also help you build trust and transparency. It’ll increase acceptance and honesty for your own sake, which could be helpful in the long run when you’re trying to combat this.

A decent approach, cognitive behavioral therapy-style, would be to map out all of your contacts first and then experiment with hanging around people that give you a good outcome MORE and bad people LESS. You want to change the behaviors that give you a bad result into behaviors that give you what you want.

When you map them out initially, it could be helpful to keep this in mind:

Who is it?

What’s your relationship?

Is the person supportive?

How often do you meet?

Does the person give or take energy? A scale of minus 5 to plus 5 could be useful here where minus five is the biggest energy thief you know of, and five is practically a power station.

Try to include everyone you’ve got: close ones, shallow friends, colleagues, and people you used to know. You want to get a clear picture! If you add the ones you used to know – you might very well remember that they were pretty nice. Perhaps you could reach out once more if that’s the case?

When you’re done and look at the frequency, how often you meet, you could look for patterns.

Do you hang around those you ought to be with?

Do you spend more time with the less important people?

Could you change things up?


Cling to those who give you energy and support. Reach out to those you don’t meet enough. Decline and reject those who burden you further.

Focusing on others

While focusing on others might be a lousy solution to burnout, it could be a tremendous tool to battle depression. Focusing on others and their problem when you’re too stressed could end you entirely because you don’t have those resources. If you’re running low on energy because of stress, this isn’t the right tool, but if everything is dull, meaningless, and dark, the shift of focus could brighten your entire life.

Depression isolates us as we huddle up with our problems, or what we see as problems even though they barely are. Helping others could be a way to avoid said isolation. If we move along and force ourselves to help others instead of ruminating on our misery, that could be a way to break the cycle. It is a distraction and serves a bigger purpose if you’re helping others. Serving a purpose and doing good things are opposites of meaninglessness, which is a big problem with depression. If that’s out of the way – you’re on your way.

When you’re in a social situation, and you’re active and trying to be busy enough with being there, it’s common to focus there – like a forced mindfulness practice – which distracts you from whatever drags you down. You focus on the outside, on the real world, rather than your internal world of darkness.

If you feel as if you need guidance, chat me up on Facebook or use the contact function at www.mbdolor.com/contact.

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