Social isolation, in a nutshell, means your social network is limited and unfulfilling. If you feel isolated, there’s a lot you can do to reshape your social circle and enjoy meaningful connections with others.
You can think of social isolation as a state of detachment, one where you lack social bonds or ties.
Anyone can become isolated. To put it another way, isolation often has nothing to do with your character, charisma, or other personality traits.
Perhaps you’re recovering after pregnancy and childbirth, and you don’t talk to anyone besides your partner, most days. Or maybe you moved to a new city a few weeks ago. You’ve met plenty of people, but you don’t know any of them well yet. You might also feel isolated in other circumstances:
retiring after 20 years at the same job
breaking up with your partner of several years and feeling as if you’ve lost all your mutual friends
starting a new job where you don’t know anyone, or any of the office traditions
leaving home to start college
Isolation isn’t the same thing as loneliness, a feeling where you long for social contact. Loneliness may happen as a natural consequence of isolation, of course, but you can have a thriving network of friends and loved ones and still feel lonely from time to time.
Still, like loneliness, isolation can have a far-reaching impact on your overall well-being. Read on to learn a few signs of social isolation to pay attention to, how it might affect your everyday life, and what you can do forge new bonds.
Signs of social isolation
Due to the rise of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become pretty common for some people to spend entire days at home in solitude.
So, how do you tell the difference between social isolation and everyday life in the digital age?
Isolation is somewhat relative, but researchers generally consider signs like:
Relationship status: Are you married? Dating? Or happily single?
Community participation: Do you belong to any clubs or sports teams? Are you a member of a religious group, like a church or temple?
Number of close contacts: Do you trust at least a few people enough to house-sit when you leave town, bring you groceries when you get sick, or confide in after a bad breakup?
Frequency of contact: Do you talk with your friends and family on a regular basis?
Overall quality of relationships: Do you feel like the people in your life respect and care about you?
You may have thousands of Twitter followers, a large group of classmates you spend time with, or a whole Brady Bunch of a family tree. But you might still be socially isolated if you have a hard time connecting because you:
feel like an outsider
believe no one knows the real you
worry that everyone in your life considers you a burden
go days or weeks without having a meaningful conversation with anyone
Who’s most at risk?
The structure of society means some groups of people are more vulnerable to isolation than others. At-risk groups include:
Older adults: As people age, their social circles often grow smaller due to retirement, an empty nest, and the loss of older family members. Ageism can further restrict how much older adults participate in community events.
Marginalized groups: People who regularly face stigma and discrimination may have a smaller pool of social contacts they feel emotionally safe with. Some social circles may exclude them by default.
People with disabilities: Even with anti-discrimination laws in place, many people with disabilities, especially those who use wheelchairs, have trouble finding accessible transportation — which can seriously limit their ability to socialize in-person.
People in remote locations: Military service members, airline pilots, and other people who spend long periods of time away from home can begin to feel disconnected from their loved ones. People living in rural areas may also have a hard time forming a robust social circle.
Immunocompromised people: According to a 2022 study, many immunocompromised people feel locked out of public life now that much of the public has stopped using masks and other key COVID-19 precautions. In short, they can’t participate in everyday social activities without risking their health.
How to cope with isolation
Isolation can happen for many reasons, so some coping strategies may work better for your unique circumstances than others.
A few strategies to consider:
If you’ve moved far away from loved ones, face-to-face time can become sparse. But thanks to technological advances, you can stay connected through text, email, and video calls.
Research involving older adults in long-term care facilities found even a 5-minute weekly video call with loved ones may significantly reduce loneliness and help people feel more emotionally supported.
Find a fur friend
Pet ownership can go a long way toward helping reduce social isolationTrusted Source.
Animals don’t just offer unconditional companionship, they often also make great icebreakers — something you might already know, if you’ve ever visited a dog park.
ResearchTrusted Source involving older adults China found older dog owners were more socially connected than their peers, because walking their dog encouraged them to go outside and spend time with other dog owners.
Explore new communities
Not all friendships and relationships can be salvaged. Maybe you serve as the family scapegoat, most of the people in your friend group regularly make homophobic remarks, or your partner consistently puts you down.
Sometimes, cutting ties with toxic people can do a lot of good for your mental health. If your current social network mistreats you, rest assured that other people out in the world will value and accept you as yourself. It may take some time to find them, but starting that search is an important first step.
Making the first overtures toward friendship could help you form new connections more easily.
Consider joining a pen pal program, mentorship group, or community center to reach out to other isolated people around the world.
You can also begin to grow your social circle by volunteering. According to one 2018 study, volunteering in itself can offer an effective way to expand your social network, especially when mourning the loss of a loved one.