Social isolation and disengagement are becoming epidemic in our society and there seems to be little hope of this trend abating in the near future. The reasons for this are mixed and somewhat complex, however, the outcome is clearer: people who are isolated are not fully enjoying the fruits of living in this “land of plenty” and are denied one of the most fundamental needs for survival – the opportunity to have fellowship and belonging with others. Some writers differentiate between being isolated and choosing disengagement, the former being a result of forces beyond one’s control and the latter a choice.
Whatever the distinctions between the sources of isolation, it is just as potent, and as potentially catastrophic, to those in both groups. As a domain of personal power, social isolation and disengagement have serious implications. The realm of collective or social identity is a cornerstone of empowerment and isolation from the social or collective aspect can unravel the whole network of supports required to achieve or maintain personal power. You have likely experienced isolation at various times in your own life. The experience is routinely reported as being unpleasant and alienating. Those forcibly separated or stranded from human contact are often on a fast track to mental and emotional collapse. Those who live among us, and are still socially isolated, fare little better and likely feel even lonelier than those forced into separation from the mainstream.
If you suffer from isolation, whatever the cause, it is important to become fully aware of what it is doing to you and take steps to remedy this condition. According to a recent review of a study by Brummet, Dr James House of University of Michigan affirms that social isolation is hazardous to health and often deadly. The article provides another confirmation, recognized in research over the previous 20 25 years, of the deleterious effects on health of social isolation. Social isolation has been shown to contribute to higher mortality, especially among medically vulnerable groups of individuals. As some attribute one of the chief sources of anxiety to isolation, it is notable that anxiety is linked to physical health problems such as asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, and coronary heart disease.
As anxiety levels increase, the quality of life potentially decreases, particularly for untreated anxiety. Some compare the risk associated with social isolation to those of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors. Isolated individuals report fewer interactions with others, fewer sources of psychological/emotional and instrumental support, and lower levels of religious activity; however, once the deficiency was removed, adding additional relationships to a social network did not produce substantial or significant increases in health and well-being. This suggests that those most profoundly affected by isolation gain the most with the least intervention. Whether a person has regular interaction with family members, friends or other groups seems less important than that the person has one or more of these social ties.
In other studies, social disconnectedness has been found to be a contributing cause for the increase of anxiety levels among the general population. With increased divorce rates and more people living alone; some suggest that interpersonal trust has become a large problem in this country. Some writers, across disciplines, suggest that the idea of individualism in American culture may be contributing to these changes: “Our greater autonomy may lead to increased challenges and excitement, but it also leads to greater isolation from others, more threats to our bodies and minds, and thus higher levels of free-floating anxiety” according to Twenge. The fact that traditional social institutions and networks don’t supply the same levels of social support as in earlier generations is certainly a consideration.
Fewer people turn to church or other networks to meet their social or material needs. Some studies suggest that for many families, the only social institution retaining any importance is the workplace, with employees turning to this network to meet most or all of their social and material needs. While family and community are not exactly disintegrating as some suggest, they are changing in radical new ways. There is a strong relationship between the experience of emotional neglect in childhood and feelings of social isolation or loneliness in adulthood. This may change as individuals adapt to unconventional lifestyles and childhood “neglect” becomes the norm, but not anytime soon.
Many commentators believe that a feeling of belongingness and closeness in communities would likely impact the incidence of isolation; however, the community is not a reliable agent to reach out to the disconnected and disenfranchised. As community empowerment is still just a catch-phrase in most areas, self-empowerment strategies are the only reliable means for each individual to attain some level of connectedness and combat their own isolation.
Self empowerment means taking your power, so you will have to act powerfully, that is, you will have to start by pushing against your own self-imposed limitations, however, this gets easier the further you progress. Getting started is always the hardest part! Start slow, and you will be amazed at your own accomplishments in no time – just be sure to start. Here is a list of suggestions, somewhat in their order of increasing intensity and exposure to social stressors.
1) You can start on the computer – what a great instrument for connecting people. If you’re reading this, you are already starting, you obviously have the skills. Google an online group or community that would have some compelling interest for you. If you’re into movies, look for a chat room or forum concerning movies and start getting involved. You can start by saying you haven’t been able to get out for a while and you’d appreciate any tips on what’s hot at the cinema and let it go from there. You get the idea. One or several of these contacts could turn into a real-life encounter. Maybe the local chapter goes to a movie together once a month, or has a party – here’s your chance to venture out a little.
2) Take the idea of common interest a step further. Most communities are full of opportunities to get together, face-to-face, with like-minded souls. It’s much easier if you have things in common. Whatever your passion is, make finding an appropriate group that shares it your priority. A casual meeting is probably the best place to start. That will likely develop into other opportunities and friendships, but start not too far out of your comfort zone. Whether it’s rock climbing, amateur dramatics, ceramics or speaking Spanish, you’ll find courses and clubs in your area (see your local paper or adult education centre for more details). What’s more, you’ll automatically have a common interest with the people you meet. This is new territory, take it somewhat slow – but take it! volunteering is a good option for a lot of folks as it not only gives structure to your people encounters, it takes the focus off of you and puts it on whoever the recipients of your volunteer efforts may be.
3) Consider a support group or self-help group. If the previous steps are too overwhelming, then you certainly qualify. There are a number of self-help groups that would be appropriate for the symptoms and issues associated with social isolation. Emotions Anonymous, or any other appropriate 12 step program can be a powerful resource to help you transition from isolation to active social involvement. If even this seems to daunting, a paid group therapeutic experience may be the answer. This is a totally safe and protected group activity that would help you gain enough strength to then transition to a self-help group model and from there – the sky’s the limit.
4) Establish your “social identity”. This is about deriving strength and power from the meaningful groups of which you’re a part. Involvement in groups, relationships, partnerships that give depth and meaning to your life are critical. You will have to do some in-depth self examination here to find out where you fit. Throw your fears to the wind and imagine, if you could be involved with any group, organizations or set of individuals in the entire world – who would they be? Then go about making it a reality. Maybe you really want to be part of an academic community – OK – it’s yours for the taking. Break the process up into small, manageable pieces. We call that partialization in the mental health business.
5) If you already have a social life of sorts, but simply don’t choose to be active with it for whatever reason, you can try altering your usual routines such as meeting friends straight from work/college rather than going home first; try some different activities like museums and galleries, or coffee shops. You can schedule attending events or courses in advance, activities you can’t back out of at the last minute. If you really can’t make it out, invite friends over or have a conference call with them. You can have an impromptu gathering by asking guests to bring something to contribute like music, food, drink and films.
6) You may be one of the unfortunates who suffer from a true social anxiety disorder or social phobia. If you suspect this is the case, get evaluated and if necessary, get medical intervention. Medication may be appropriate for some who just can’t make the changes otherwise. Even a short-term regimen could be beneficial. Some studies suggest reduced dopamine levels contribute to social isolation and the some of the newer antidepressants can address this rather effectively.
7) Feed your spirit – whatever that means to you. For many of us, developing that inner strength, or connecting to a bigger energy source, gives us the motivation and desire to move forward. Some simple spiritual ideas: “I’m not in this alone”; “only unrealistic fears hold me back” and “the universe wants me to be fulfilled”. These are simple affirmations that can hold great power and help us get into action. Write your own if these don’t work. The point is that it is our old negative ideas that are the real obstacle in most cases. Seed your conscious with new positive ideas and watch yourself take off. These will also speak to your lack of confidence and esteem which play havoc with a social identity and social life. Start to emphasize your positive qualities and learn to appreciate what others admire in you; work those into your affirmations.
8) If you have the stomach for it, you can also utilize your online skills to find a date or companion. It is a rather anonymous way to break the ice and begin to build some rapport, resulting in, hopefully, a face-to-face. Traditional dating agencies are also still on the scene and can make the experience a little safer as well. The way to think of these experiences is a practice run for what will eventually be “the real thing”. We often over exaggerate the significance of a date or encounter with another as something that we have to make work. Try to just have the experience, however it goes, and learn from it. There is no timetable to find your mate and settle in. However, you do need to spend time with others and this is a perfectly acceptable way to do that.
Good luck, add to this list as you move forward. In time, the activities involved in breaking your social isolation won’t be something you’re working on but something you’re looking forward to.