Social withdrawal is a common side effect for people who have anxiety problems. Why social withdrawal occurs varies from person to person, and may have multiple causes: however, for any given cause there are also multiple solutions, which this article will discuss in detail.
If you are wondering what cause(s) of social withdrawal due to anxiety apply to you, match your symptoms to the descriptions below.
Are You Withdrawing Socially?
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Causes of Social Withdrawal
Social withdrawal can be a symptom, cause, and type of anxiety. Some people develop social withdrawal because of their anxiety symptoms. Others develop anxiety because they've withdrawn from social situations. Still others experience severe anxiety socially, causing them to withdraw. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more.
People who suffer from anxiety often have a strong desire to retreat from society, holing up and isolating themselves from the world around them. While it can seem like such people are stuck up, angry at the world or weird in some way from an outsider perspective, the truth is that it may be as uncomfortable for them to be in social situations (due to the chemical reactions occurring in their brains due to anxiety) as it would be for a highly social anxiety-free person to be trapped in a lonely, empty room.
The reasons behind the desire to socially withdraw depend on how your anxiety manifests itself. These are some example of the general reasons why an anxious person would have the desire to withdraw:
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. Reasons to avoid public panic attacks can range anywhere from pride to fear to 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 point to weakness: a racing heart, sweating, paleness, shaking and nausea are unpleasant symptoms on their own, but having people you care about see you in an uncontrolled and relatively weak state may disturb you to the extent that you feel the need to remove yourself from their presence.
On the other hand, 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.
It is also possible for your primary reason for isolating yourself to be related 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 is an irrational fear of social interactions. It involves making obsessive, negative assumptions about what people think of you, the judgments they may be making and the consequences that can come from that distance a lot of people from new acquaintances, coworkers and even from their friends.
Those that have social phobia often avoid meeting people because of how bad their anxiety makes them feel about themselves, and eventually they withdraw.
Withdrawal as a Symptom
In some cases, withdrawal itself may be a symptom of anxiety. Many people that deal with stress feel this overwhelming urge to be alone. What's interesting, however, is that being alone actually makes 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.
Some people also find that they have problems speaking 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, which 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 discomfort with society and going new places to the inability to leave one's home. 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, almost literally, a disorder of social withdrawal. The person doesn't spend time with anyone else because they're afraid to be in a place that's unfamiliar and uncomfortable to them, so they stay inside of their home almost every day.
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Thoughts That Can Lead To Social Withdrawal
Social withdrawal can often be triggered by negative thoughts. That's because self-esteem plays a tremendous role in the development of anxiety. If you have too many negative thoughts, you increase the likelihood of feeling more anxious.
If you experience negative thoughts and find yourself making any of the excuses below, it may be time to reevaluate your choices to avoid a complete mental and physical collapse. Here are some of the reasons people find to avoid changing their lives to minimize their anxiety:
- 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 motivated to do anything about it (and are also probably suffering from some level of depression).
- I just need to work harder. Though it can seem crazy, some people can rationalize it to the point that it is perfectly reasonable in their minds. 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 beyond the selfishness they believe to be behind taking care of themselves to the necessity it really is.
- I can handle it without help. This attitude is often adopted by men and people who are not socially expected or do not like to show weakness. Even I 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. Other people often need to convince them to stop and give themselves a break.
- 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 withdrawal.
Solutions to Social Withdrawal
Solving 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 ways to address the causes of your social withdrawal.
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 one second (take your time, and be careful not to hyperventilate). This has been proven 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, ®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 fact 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.
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.
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 you have a problem (or let other people convince you that you have one). 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 with 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.
I've helped thousands of people overcome their social withdrawal. Start with my free 7 minute anxiety test. This test is a great way to make sure that you learn as much about your anxiety as possible and take the necessary steps to stop it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.