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Social Withdrawal - Anxiety Causes & Solutions

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
Social Withdrawal - Anxiety Causes & Solutions

Social withdrawal - i.e. choosing to minimize contact with others - is a common symptom for people who have anxiety problems. The underlying causes and explanations for social withdrawal vary from person to person. However, for any given cause there are also multiple possible solutions, which this article will discuss in detail.

Read on to see whether any of the possible causes of social withdrawal relate to your experience. 

What is Social Withdrawal?

Social withdrawal can be both a symptom and a cause of anxiety. Social withdrawal can also characterize an anxiety disorder (social anxiety disorder) in and of itself. Some people develop social withdrawal because of other pre-existing anxiety symptoms. Other people's’ anxiety is reinforced because they continuously opt to withdraw from social situations. Still others experience severe anxiety socially from the start, which then reinforces their tendency to withdraw. 

People who suffer from anxiety often have a strong desire to retreat from society, staying home and isolating themselves from the world around them. To outsiders, it may seem as though the person with social anxiety is being disinterested or stuck-up. The truth, however, is that often people with social anxiety are simply withdrawing because it’s too unbearably anxiety-provoking for them to be in social situations. 

There are varying factors which might explain why a person chooses to withdraw. These are some examples of such factors:

Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks are a big reason why anxiety sufferers may want to seclude themselves. No matter who you are, it is no fun to lose control in public. People with anxiety are especially prone to feel ashamed or embarrassed when they consider how other people might perceive their symptoms. In other words, reasons to avoid public panic attacks can range from pride and fear to a basic sense of self preservation.

You may be someone who feels the need to protect their pride by keeping your anxiety a private matter, especially when it comes to the symptoms of an anxiety attack which you may feel indicate a personal weakness. Symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating, paleness, shaking and nausea are unpleasant symptoms on their own, but having other people see you in an uncontrolled and or “weak” state may disturb you to the extent that you feel the need to remove yourself from their presence.

Similarly, you may be primarily afraid of how other people will react to you losing control. Fear of social embarrassment and/or rejection can play a big role in an anxious person's decision to keep away from others. In fact, this fear is one of the hallmark symptoms of social anxiety disorder.

It is also possible that your primary reason for isolating yourself is related more to physical rather than psychological concerns, such as worrying about what might happen if you had a panic attack while driving, on a crowded bus, or in the middle of a crosswalk.

Social phobia (now known as social anxiety disorder) is an exaggerated fear of social interactions. It involves making obsessive, negative assumptions about what people may think of you and what judgments they may be making (such as being unlikeable, useless, or that one is embarrassing to be around). The consequences of this might involve you choosing to distance yourself socially from friends, strangers, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Those that have social phobia often avoid meeting new people because of how bad their anxiety makes them feel about themselves, and instead they withdraw rather than exposing them to new social situations.

Withdrawal as a Symptom

In some cases, withdrawal itself may be a symptom of anxiety. Many people that deal with stress feel an overwhelming urge to be alone. What's interesting, however, is that being alone may actually make the anxiety worse. When you're lost in your own thoughts, you'll often find that your thoughts become your enemy. When you're surrounded by others, on the other hand, it becomes harder to be stuck in your own mind. Additionally, while it may take some effort to put yourself out there socially, the sort of emotional support that you may get from being around other people can be beneficial to your emotional wellbeing and self-esteem. 

Speaking Problems

Some people also find that they have problems speaking normally when they have anxiety. For these people, having to talk to others, or even just trying to follow a conversation while worrying about what to say, may cause them to tense up to the extent that they can't say anything at all. In other cases, they may develop a stutter or obsess about aspects of speech such as sounding too loud or too quiet; or talking too fast or too slow. All of this can result in disjointed or odd-sounding speech. Knowing that you speak this way and seeing others' reactions to it can easily dissuade you from wanting to put yourself in a position or social situation where you have no choice but to speak.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is a condition in which crowded or unfamiliar spaces cause anxiety. Symptoms can range from mild to extreme discomfort - the latter may result in a complete inability to even leave one's home for extended periods of time. Agoraphobia commonly occurs as a result of anxiety attacks, where the person becomes afraid to leave their home because they tend to get attacks when they're out of their comfort zone. It may also develop after a trauma.

Agoraphobia is, essentially, a disorder of withdrawal from any space that does not feel as safe as one’s home. While the person is not scared of being around other people per se, they feel afraid to leave the safety of their home in case they are overcome by anxiety during that time. While agoraphobia does not always involve social withdrawal - for example, people with this disorder may appreciate a companion to accompany them on excursions outside of their house - they often end up withdrawing socially simply because they prefer not to leave the home. 

Stop Your Anxiety

Social withdrawal can often be triggered by negative thoughts. That's because self-esteem plays a tremendous role in the development of anxiety. Too many negative thoughts, such as feeling inadequate or believing you are not fun to be around, may increase your likelihood of feeling more anxious; and people with poor a self-esteem are more likely to experience these sorts of negative thoughts. 

Sometimes, negative thoughts and a poor self-esteem are linked to deeply held beliefs that we carry about ourselves. Here are some examples: 

Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Once you recognize this you need to find out what you can do about it. If you identified with any of the above sentiments or simply realize you need to put a stop to your persistent and draining anxiety, read on for suggestions regarding how you can help give your mind and body a rest and reduce some of your social anxiety. 

Addressing social withdrawal is usually a matter of figuring out the feelings you are having that are at the root of the problem, and working from there by way of therapy and, if you or your doctor deem it necessary, medication. However, there are some additional techniques that you can use to help reduce your tendency to withdraw socially. 

There are people that do legitimately prefer spending time alone for reasons other than anxiety disorders, and if you are one of these people, don't assume (or let other people convince you) that you have a problem. However, if you wish you were more socially comfortable, and being able to spend time with people without feeling anxious would make you happy, it is a good idea to consider integrating the above activities into your daily life.

You'll also need to start controlling your anxiety as quickly as possible, because anxiety itself is an overwhelming condition that has social withdrawal as a symptom. If you learn to control your anxiety, you'll have less reason to withdraw. The exercises we have covered today may prove helpful in reducing your overall anxiety. However, you may also want to consider committing to a targeted treatment program with a trained professional if you find that these aren’t enough.

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