Emotional Effects

How Isolation and Loneliness Hurt Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

How Isolation and Loneliness Hurt Anxiety

"I just need some time alone."

This is one of the most common phrases that those with anxiety say when they experience severe anxiety or stress. It can also be one of the most incorrect statements about how to deal with anxiety.

Taking time to rest and recover is important. However, isolation, loneliness, and simply not conversing with others can have a profoundly negative emotional impact, in a way that few people even realize. This article will explore how too much time alone can become problematic and why ensuring some social interaction is essential for managing anxiety.

Isolation and Loneliness are Both a Cause and a Symptom

Feeling lonely and isolating yourself from the world can be both a cause and a symptom of anxiety. Some people experience anxiety because they feel incredibly isolated. Others feel they need to be alone to reduce their anxiety.

As a Cause

Social support is psychologically powerful. Actual, university-level scientific studies have found that most human beings are intensely social creatures and that if they don't feel socially supported they become more at risk for not only anxiety/stress but also physical health problems as well. The feeling of being supported may be more important than the actual number of friends or time spent with them, and this may vary from person to person.

So it's no surprise that those that feel that they're not socially supported - whether they have no friends, or they have many friends but don't feel supported by those friends - can feel anxious. That type of isolation seems to go against how human beings have developed to function.

For many with anxiety, this represents somewhat of a Catch-22. Most people do not want to feel as though they aren't supported by others, but anxiety also makes it harder to meet others, go out, and make friendships. That's one of the reasons that anxiety is such a challenge. Imagine living with social phobia and knowing that social support is needed to cure social phobia? It's no wonder that so many people that feel lonely and isolated develop shyness and anxiety.

As a Symptom

But the problem doesn't end there. Many people with anxiety also choose to be more isolated. That's because anxiety causes two issues that end up leading to isolation:

  • The belief that being alone will help you reduce your stress. This is an incredibly common belief, and one that all evidence shows is completely wrong.
  • The lack of enjoyment they get going out and spending time with others as a result of their anxiety. They may start to avoid socialising to manage how they are feeling, or not want to “burden” others when they are anxious.

Not to mention the negative thinking that comes from having anxiety about the idea of social situations. There's a reason that many people with anxiety are more prone to feeling embarrassed and shy - anxiety causes not just fear, but also “catastrophic” (thinking of the worst case scenario) and "black and white" thinking. This involves thinking in absolutes. For example going out may be seen as either “safe” or “dangerous”, with no grey area in between. This may lead to individuals over-estimating the negatives of socialising and deciding to stay at home.

We all need to "de-stress" once in a while. Spending some time by yourself can help give you a bit of a "recharge" after a long day. But for most people there is a limit to how long that alone time is useful. After a while, you may find yourself spending more and more time alone.

The reality though is that being alone is often the exact opposite of what you need to do to overcome anxiety. That's because when you have anxiety, your thought processes tend to become skewed, and you become far more internalized (focused inside of your head). Anxiety is associated with negative and fearful thoughts, and anxiety puts you inside of your head, concentrating the experience of those negative thoughts.

Managing anxiety often requires distractions. It requires you to stop overthinking and live life. It's something that is much, much harder to do when you're alone with your thoughts. As much as it may seem like you can overcome your anxiety by yourself - and sometimes you can - the truth is that, in general, when you're alone and isolated, you tend to have more negative thoughts for a longer period.

Distractions and social atmospheres are far better for getting over stress and anxiety faster, no matter how you feel and what you think. Studies have consistently shown this.

The Solution for Both the Cause and Symptom

So we know that isolation and loneliness cause and lead to more anxiety. We also know that anxiety makes it harder to socialize and become close to others. Obviously, that creates a bit of a problem.

It is important to note though that all anxiety - including social anxiety and panic disorder - is incredibly treatable. These conditions have been proven to be possible to challenge and reduce if you commit to the right treatment. The following are some of the tips necessary for improving your ability to find social support and improving your anxiety:

  • Start Exercising Exercise may not seem social, and often it isn't. But there are aspects of exercising - especially jogging and spending time in a gym - that are highly beneficial. First, exercise is proven to reduce anxiety, because it improves the flow and production of some of the neurotransmitters that create anxiety in the first place. Second, exercise is shown to improve confidence, which is important for overcoming the isolation. And third, exercise can involve being around other people, even if you don't talk to them, and that's important in its right. If you do nothing else, start exercising today.
  • Closer to Those You Know Social support doesn't need to come from anywhere. If you have people in your life that are a positive impact (generally people that are nice and positive people), then spend more time with them and grow closer to them. As long as you're feeling supported, it doesn't matter if you have one friend or 500. Be close to someone and spend time with someone and you'll see the results.
  • Socialize Elsewhere Perhaps your social phobia or shyness make it harder for you to interact. That's okay. See if there are others like you that you can meet and try to get over your social issues together. There are sometimes social phobia support groups, and Meet-Ups that you can find both online and offline (or organize yourself), that can help. Being around others that are also suffering is still a way to socialize, and perhaps you can learn coping strategies together.
  • Stay Busy/Be Alone Less On Purpose You should also make sure that you're trying to stay as active and busy as you can, and never allowing yourself to succumb to that feeling of being alone for long periods on purpose. When you are alone, give yourself things to do, including puzzles, books, funny shows on TV (no dramas or anxiety-producing horror stories, of course), and whatever else you can find to lessen your anxiety further. Staying busy is a useful way to keep your mind off of your anxieties.

You should also start taking steps to reduce your anxiety overall so that if you are struggling to meet others or you're finding that you feel like you want to be alone and isolated a lot, you no longer have those fears.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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