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 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.
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 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:
- I don't deserve to be happy. Some people feel good about feeling bad on some level because they are trying to atone for perceived wrongs they have committed in the past, or have low enough self-esteem that they decide they should be miserable. These people will realize they are suffering from anxiety, but not feel sufficiently motivated to do anything about it or may not yet have the skills needed to overcome it.
- I just need to work harder. Though it can seem odd, some people can rationalize their anxiety to the point that it appears reasonable and appropriate that they should be suffering. They figure that if they are suffering, it is because they have not worked hard enough to make life easy for themselves. While this mindset can be productive, it can also result in running yourself into the ground if you are in a bad state to begin with.
- Other people are more important than me. While it's perfectly valid to value, for example, the well-being of your loved one or of a blood relation such as a child as much as or perhaps more than your own, some people give so much of themselves to others they begin to feel guilty if they spend any effort making their own lives better. Because being selfless is a good thing, it is hard for these people to see that looking after themselves is not just an act of selfishness, but an act of self-preservation.
- I can handle it without help. This attitude is often adopted by men and people who are not comfortable with showing weakness due to social and cultural expectations. Even if they are in clear need of help or a lifestyle change, they adopt the idea that nothing is too much for them and they will simply power through. When these people live in isolation, they can be a danger to themselves.
- I have no power over my situation. - When a person assumes they have no power over their life when it becomes difficult to handle, they actually do become more powerless, not to mention more vulnerable to collapse.
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.
- Take 5 Deep Breaths Before entering a room full of people (a party, family gathering, bar or art gallery), take 5 deep breaths and hold each one for two seconds (take your time, and be careful not to hyperventilate). This has been shown to relax the body and mind by encouraging the heart to circulate a little extra oxygen and blood to the brain and limbs, enabling you to think and act with more speed and confidence.
- Create a Mantra Mantras are belief-building phrases that you can use in stressful social situations to ground yourself, or remind yourself what you need to do. If you can make them rhyme, or sound catchy in some way, they'll be easier to remember. An example of this might be Breathe and relax, don't turn back or Be STRONG: (S)mile, (T)alk, (R)elax, (O)pen, (N)od, (G)oodbye. Say them to yourself in comfortable setting before using them in a stressful environment to help associate them with a relaxed state of mind (and of course, only say them in your head when you're in public!).
- Think About People You Know Picturing familiar faces such as those of close friends or family can help to put you into a state of relaxation, because the sight of those faces makes you feel as though you are in a familiar setting (even if you're not) and puts you in a mental space where you can let your guard down without worry. One trick is to study the face of whoever you end up talking to and decide what familiar person they look most like. This exercise can help you keep your mind off of your anxiety and also cause you to act more friendly towards them.
- Anchor Yourself If you feel your negative thoughts spiraling out of control into a panic, it can be helpful to anchor yourself by looking around you and naming physical objects that you see in your head until you feel calmer (for example: floor, chair, lamp, desk etc) . This has the effect of restoring confidence in your ability to know what to say/say the right thing when you want to; it can also temporarily distract you from your anxiety and bring about a greater level of calm.
- Address Each Fear Another strategy is to start addressing the fears you have about social situations directly. For example, if you have a fear of embarrassment, try to embarrass yourself on purpose somewhere until you no longer have that fear. It can be hard, but if you address each individual issue you may find that your overall anxiety decreases as a result. You may find it helpful to explain to a trusted friend what you are trying to do, and allow them to accompany you when you perform this social experiment.
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.