Social isolation is usually involuntary, making it distinct from isolating tendencies or actions consciously undertaken by a person, all of which go by various other names. It is also not the same as loneliness rooted in temporary lack of contact with other humans.
True social isolation over years and decades tends to be a chronic condition affecting all aspects of a person's existence. These people have no one to turn to in personal emergencies, no one to confide in during a crisis, and no one to measure their own behavior against or learn etiquette from — referred to sometimes as social control, but possibly best described as simply being able to see how other people behave and adapt oneself to that behaviour. Lack of consistent human contact can also cause conflict with the (peripheral) friends the socially-isolated person might occasionally talk to, or might cause interaction problems with family members. It may also give rise to uncomfortable thoughts and behaviours within the person, buoyed by the fact that there are no other humans around to tell the person whether those behaviors are "right or wrong".
The day to day effects of this type of deep-rooted social isolation can mean staying home for days or even weeks at a time, both not contacting and not being contacted by any acquaintances (even peripherally), and not having contact with other people physically. It can also mean that, even if physical or other communicative contact with other people does occur, it is superficial, very occasional, and quite brief. More meaningful, extended relationships, and especially close intimacy (both emotional and physical) are all missing.
Effects on humans
Illness and Social Isolation
When it comes to physical illness, "The magnitude of risk associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking and other major biomedical and psychosocial risk factors. However, our understanding of how and why social isolation is risky for health—or conversely—how and why social ties and relationships are protective of health, still remains quite limited." -- [(Reference 2)]
The research of Brummett (Reference 3 below) shows that social isolation is unrelated to a wide range of measures of demographic factors, disease severity, physical functioning, and psychological distress. Hence, such factors can not account for or explain the substantial deleterious effects of social isolation.
However, they also show that isolated individuals report fewer interactions with others, fewer sources of psychological/emotional and instrumental support, and lower levels of religious activity. The obvious question is whether adjusting for one or more of these factors reduces the association of social relationships/isolation with health. Which factors constitute the active ingredient in social isolation producing its deleterious effects on health?
First is the idea that isolation from others is anxiety arousing or stressful in and of itself, producing physiological arousal and changes, which if prolonged, can produce serious morbidity or mortality; and, conversely that affiliation or contact with others reduces or modulates physiological arousal, both, in general and in the presence of stress and other threats to health. A growing body of evidence from experimental studies of animals and humans is consistent with this hypothesis.
A second hypothesis is that social relationships beneficially affect health, not only because of their supportiveness, but also because of the social control that others exercise over a person, especially by encouraging health-promoting behaviors such as adequate sleep, diet, exercise, and compliance with medical regimes or by discouraging health-damaging behaviors such as smoking, excessive eating, alcohol consumption, or drug abuse.
Another hypothesis is that social ties link people with diffuse social networks that facilitate access to a wide range of resources supportive of health, such as medical referral networks, access to others dealing with similar problems, or opportunities to acquire needed resources via jobs, shopping, or financial institutions. These effects are different from support in that they are less a function of the nature of immediate social ties but rather of the ties these immediate ties provide to other people.
Traditionally those seeking support with social isolation would have to venture out to find that support, something they were often loathe to do. Psychotherapy groups were the sole form of organized resources to address the issue, with the standard social venues of bars and clubs presenting the less formal options.
With the advent of online social networking communities, there are increasing options. Chat rooms, message boards, and other types of communities are now meeting the need for those who would rather stay home alone to do so yet still develop communities of online friends.
New offerings have even begun addressing the specific issue of social isolation by acting as a resource for facilitation of phone-based peer counseling sessions among members. Members are taught how to offer one another Compassionate Listening and other types of supportive peer counseling and are then provided with the software they need to confidentially trade free sessions. Ostensibly participation would not only increase social contact opportunities for the members, but also enhance their relationships outside the community by helping them develop better communication skills.
Effects on animals
- Animal maternal deprivation
- Patient seclusion
- Schizoid personality disorder
- Schizotypal personality disorder
- Social anxiety
1. - World Book; Elkin, Frederick The Child and Society: The Process of Socialization
2. - Psychosomatic Medicine 63:273-274 (2001) © 2001 American Psychosomatic Society See Article
3. - Brummett BH, Barefoot JC, Siegler IC, Clapp-Channing NE, Lytle BL, Bosworth HB, Williams RB Jr, Mark DB. Characteristics of socially isolated patients with coronary artery disease who are at elevated risk for mortality.
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