What Causes Social Withdrawal?

Connection is an essential part of the human experience. We desire connection, and, in many ways, we’re hardwired to be social. Yet, at the same time, people may enjoy some time alone to rest, reflect, and recharge. This differs from pulling away from your support system and intentionally avoiding opportunities to interact with others. When a person removes opportunities for socializing, they may be experiencing social withdrawal.  

An integral aspect of development is learning to socialize and create relationships with others. When we choose not to or limit our opportunities for connection, it can lead to issues that impact our emotional, mental, and physical well-being. 

This article discusses social withdrawal and what causes it.

Upset woman sitting on couch alone at home
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What Is Social Withdrawal?

Japanese psychologist, Saito, discussed a particular type of social withdrawal, known as hikikomori, as the act of withdrawing or removing contact with family or other members of a person’s support system and not engaging in activities such as work or school.

As social creatures, social behavior and relationships contribute to healthy development. It teaches us a great deal about ourselves and our identities and influences our social and cognitive skills.

Social withdrawal can lead to a person developing a pattern of solitary activities. In turn, their interpersonal skills may suffer.

As a result, social withdrawal can be associated with feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and fear of rejection. In addition, lack of social interaction can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and physical, cognitive, and mental health issues. 

Examples of Social Withdrawal

Some examples of what social withdrawal might look like include:

  • Your family invited you to dinner this weekend, but you don’t feel like interacting with others and decide not to go.
  • Your coworkers keep inviting you to lunch, and you keep saying no.
  • Your best friends have been calling and texting you, but you don’t have the energy or desire to respond.
  • You’ve skipped your community sports league games for the last few weeks.

If you find yourself withdrawing socially in these or other ways, it may lead to increased feelings of anxiety, depression, and shame. The longer you go on like this, the more isolated you begin to feel.

What Causes Social Withdrawal?

There are many theories on what contributes to social withdrawal. Research suggests that withdrawal is associated with mental health conditions such as:

In these cases, social withdrawal is sometimes viewed as a sign or symptom of a mental health disorder.

Other factors that can lead to social withdrawal are:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Shame
  • Sadness
  • Vulnerability 
  • Anger
  • Perceived isolation
  • Previous relationship issues 
  • Fear of rejection 

Additionally, a person’s preference or temperament, environment, and familial dynamics are also possible factors.

Social Withdrawal in Children

As children grow and discover more about themselves, they may have periods when they become more elusive or reclusive. To some extent, this is normal as they explore their identities. However, if you notice that your child is avoiding school, experiencing low mood, having difficulty establishing friendships, or engaging socially, these may be some indicators that something else is happening. 

Children may withdraw for many reasons. It may be a manifestation of:

  • Mental health conditions like anxiety or depression
  • Bullying or other conflicts
  • Social pressure
  • Shyness
  • Feeling misunderstood

Social connectedness is vital for the development of children and teens. It helps them enhance the cognitive and social skills they’ll utilize throughout their lives and learn how to establish support systems.

When children and adolescents become overly withdrawn, it can lead to:

It’s important to talk to your kids about their social connections and how they are struggling. 

Risk Factors

There are risk factors that can increase your likelihood of becoming socially withdrawn. Research identifies the following factors as possible influences:

  • Biological
  • Environmental
  • Parenting
  • Peer relationships
  • Age, particularly in older adults who experience cognitive decline
  • Mental health conditions like ADHD, anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia 

It's important to note that interactions among these factors can lead to increased social withdrawal.

Is Social Withdrawal Bad?

Social withdrawal is not to be confused with taking some time to yourself. Spending time alone can be healthy for reflection, self-care, or self-maintenance.

This is different from a more extended pattern of social withdrawal and isolation that can have negative consequences. For instance, social withdrawal at certain stages of development can impact the development of interpersonal skills, perspective-taking, problem-solving, and teaching individuals mutual respect.

A person’s overall health, well-being, and daily functioning can suffer when they significantly withdraw from social interactions. Doing so can lead to isolation, loneliness, stress, relational conflict, low energy, and even suicidal thoughts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a type of forced social withdrawal for many, and we are still learning about the longer-term impacts of this.

How to Overcome Social Withdrawal

Some ways to overcome social withdrawal include:

  • Learning coping skills to manage anxiety and depression
  • Reconnect with trusted members of your support system
  • Rediscover hobbies and interests
  • Talk to a healthcare provider or schedule an appointment with a mental health professional 
  • Practicing self-compassion and self-care

When to Seek Help

It’s OK to ask for help. It may be the first step in your journey to feeling better and becoming an active participant in your relationships again.

You might consider seeking support if you notice:

  • Anxiety or depression symptoms
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Difficulty connecting with others
  • Lack of desire to interact with others
  • Worsening social withdrawal
  • Self-harm 
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you notice that social withdrawal significantly impacts your life and relationships, it may be time to reach out for help.

Help Is Available

If you or a loved one are struggling with social withdrawal, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, dial 988 to contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect with a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Summary

A person who is socially withdrawn removes themselves from encounters and interactions with others. There are many reasons why people may choose not to connect with others, including anxiety, fear, shame, vulnerability, potential rejection, and more. It can be a reflection of an underlying mental health condition.

Social withdrawal can significantly impact a person’s ability to develop relationships with others and influence their sense of self and mental well-being. Therefore, it’s important to seek help if you find yourself withdrawing or notice your child or other loved one doing so. 

A Word From Verywell

Though it can be a solitary act, taking time for yourself to rest, reflect, and recharge is not the same as being withdrawn. If you find yourself pulling away from your support system, having trouble connecting with others, avoiding interactions with others, or experiencing increased loneliness, anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, it may be time to reach out to a professional. Having a safe space to talk about what’s going on can help you identify underlying issues contributing to social issues, as well as how you can begin to re-engage. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is social isolation a mental illness?

    No, social isolation is not a mental illness. Instead, it refers to a lack of connection or interaction with others. While disconnection may be a preference for some, for others, it can be a sign or symptom of a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. In other cases, social isolation can exacerbate mental health or interpersonal issues. 

  • What does social isolation do to the brain?

    The prefrontal cortex is essential to social functioning. It aids in regulating emotions and behavior, specifically when it comes to social interactions. Research shows that when a person is socially isolated, there can be changes in certain parts of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex. When a person experiences social isolation for long periods of time, they may experience issues related to cognitive, emotional, and physical health.

  • What does social withdrawal look like?

    Social withdrawal involves the voluntary act of removing oneself from opportunities to connect with others. Social withdrawal can present as avoidance of social events or interactions, declining to engage with others when in a social setting, isolating from an already established support system, or not engaging in social or community activities. When a person withdraws socially, they become isolated. 

  • How can I make friends?

    Making friends can seem difficult, especially when you’ve been feeling isolated or withdrawn. It can help to find people with whom you share common interests. Think about your interests, perspectives, experiences, and hobbies. Then, consider joining an online or in-person community where others share your passions. You can also reach out to family or friends you lost contact with to try and re-establish those relationships. 

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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