Some of us prefer to spend time alone, while others may much rather spend our time with friends, family, or social groups. Both preferences are perfectly normal and will be experienced by all of us to some degree. One day you may feel like socialising all day and night, and the next day you would much rather stay at home or go somewhere by yourself.
While our preferences are our own and may not be problematic, spending too much time alone can become an issue. If you find yourself spending more and more time alone because you believe others don’t understand you or that you will struggle to connect, you may be experiencing one of the more subtle symptoms of trauma. Perhaps you avoid social situations such as dinner at a friend’s house or a party as something there might remind you of a memory you would rather not think about, one that you may fear or are uncomfortable with. Or perhaps you are reluctant to reach out to others because you believe that you should be completely independent and not need anyone else. If any of these sound familiar, you could be experiencing social withdrawal – a common symptom that many people experience following a single or multiple traumatic events.
Social withdrawal involves avoiding people, places, and hobbies or activities you once enjoyed because you find it challenging to engage with others without feeling distressed, uncomfortable, or overwhelmed. While it is healthy to spend some time alone, it is also important to connect with others. Social withdrawal may be subtle to begin with, but can gradually progress into social isolation. This can make a person completely avoid friends and family and spend all of their time alone. Continuous social withdrawal tends to create a vicious cycle of isolation and loneliness as the more time you spend alone, the less you feel you can connect with others, which makes you want to spend even more time alone.
However, many people aren’t aware that we socialise to avoid threats – if we are safe and feel looked after then we are less likely to come under attack. According to Porges’ Polyvagal theory, this is the first response on our ‘ladder’ of threat responses. Trauma informs how we respond to threats, and how fast we move through this cycle. This means that trauma survivors often find themselves anxious, scared, combative, or shut-down in social situations. Clearly, people want to avoid this, which can result in social withdrawal.
Social withdrawal and isolation can make it difficult to engage in healthy coping behaviours during times of stress, which itself can be caused by isolation. When social withdrawal is a symptom of trauma, and the person suffering does not have a social support system in place, or simply avoids engaging with that system, then they may experience some of the more adverse effects of social withdrawal and isolation. These include:
- Strained relationships
- Substance misuse and abuse
- Sleep issues
Research has found that loneliness can be detrimental to our physical, emotional, behavioural, and mental health. Morese et al. define social withdrawal as ‘voluntary isolation prolonged in time that involves the cessation of any form of social relationship and contact with people and the outside.’ Humans are naturally social creatures, so when our desire and eventually our ability to socialise diminishes, we are subject to a range of adverse health effects. Following a prolonged period of social withdrawal and isolation, our sense of connection to others deteriorates and we are likely to find some other way of feeling connection and meaning. For some, this can be substance use or behavioural addiction.
A person may use substances to cope with feelings of loneliness, emptiness, or shame, but any relief gained by substance use is temporary and these feelings will soon return. If the person continues to engage in this maladaptive coping behaviour, they are highly likely to develop a substance dependence. This is characterised by a need to intake their substance of choice on a regular basis to feel normal. Dependence can then progress into addiction, which can be complex to treat and further exacerbates the mental health condition or underlying trauma that contributed to social withdrawal and other maladaptive coping behaviours in the first place.
Recovery from Social Withdrawal, Isolation, and Other Trauma-related Symptoms
The symptoms of trauma can significantly diminish a person’s quality of life. As mentioned earlier, those who have been through traumatic experiences and then go on to withdrawal socially, ultimately isolating themselves from friends, families, and the community as a whole, are subject to a range of adverse health effects stemming from feelings of loneliness and a tendency to engage in maladaptive coping/survival behaviours. To reduce the severity of social withdrawal and isolation, professional help should be sought. Therapy is available to help clients suffering from the symptoms of trauma better understand their past experiences and integrate them into their present-day lives.
Multiple treatment modalities for trauma and poor mental health are available at Khiron Clinics. Approaches range from Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) to Somatic Experiencing (SE), to Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). These approaches and more available at Khiron are effective in restoring clients living with trauma back to normal and functional health.
To reduce the severity of and tendency towards social withdrawal, its root causes must be addressed. Until we resolve our trauma, it will continue to drive our thoughts and behaviour. By reaching out for professional help, you give yourself the best chance at regaining some control over your life, which will allow you to make healthier, informed decisions.
If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
 Pineles, Suzanne L et al. “Trauma reactivity, avoidant coping, and PTSD symptoms: a moderating relationship?.” Journal of abnormal psychology vol. 120,1 (2011): 240-6. doi:10.1037/a0022123
 Bhatti, Adnan Bashir, and Anwar Ul Haq. “The Pathophysiology of Perceived Social Isolation: Effects on Health and Mortality.” Cureus vol. 9,1 e994. 24 Jan. 2017, doi:10.7759/cureus.994
 Hämmig, Oliver. “Health risks associated with social isolation in general and in young, middle and old age.” PloS one vol. 14,7 e0219663. 18 Jul. 2019, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0219663
 Morese, Rosalba et al. “Social Withdrawal And Mental Health: An Interdisciplinary Approach”. Social Isolation – An Interdisciplinary View, 2020. Intechopen, doi:10.5772/intechopen.90735. Accessed 10 Nov 2020.
 Shapiro, Francine. “The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences.” The Permanente journal vol. 18,1 (2014): 71-7. doi:10.7812/TPP/13-098