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Encyclopedia > Social isolation

Social isolation can be defined as the inability to interact normally with others. This can be confused as a symptom of autism, but cannot be defined as a mental illness. Socially isolated people are often thought of as someone who will not, and sometimes cannot, begin and/or maintain a conversation of any length. This, however, is usually not the case. Most socially isolated individuals are quite capable of carrying on conversations, but find this to be an undesireable and unnecessary task. Autism is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder which manifests itself in markedly abnormal social interaction, communication ability, patterns of interests, and patterns of behavior. ...

As this technically isn't an illness, it can't be professionally treated. The individual can, however, self-treat this simply by attempting to start talking to another without neccesity or formality, despite what their "gut" tells them. Success in doing so may lessen, or even do away with, their social isolation.


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) Psychosomatic Medicine

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 (4). 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.

Support Resources

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. A social network is a map of the relationships between individuals, indicating the ways in which they are connected through various social familiarities ranging from casual acquaintance to close familial bonds. ... A chat room is an online forum where people can chat online (talk by broadcasting messages to people on the same forum in real time). ... An Internet forum, also known as a message board or discussion board, is a web application that provides for online discussions, and is the modern descendant of the bulletin board systems and existing Usenet news systems that were widespread in the 1980s and 1990s. ...

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.


Phone Buddies - Phone-based Emotional Support Community

Tribe - Online Community primarily of Trendsters in the 25-50 age range

Friendster - Online Social Networking Community mostly used by younger adults and teens

My Space - Online Social Networking Community mostly used by younger adults and teens


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.

  Results from FactBites:
Eldis - Display (318 words)
It is worth distinguishing social exclusion from social isolation, defining social isolation as the phenomenon of non-participation (of an individual or group) in a society’ s mainstream institutions, while reserving ‘ social exclusion’ for the subset of cases in which social isolation occurs for reasons that are beyond the control of those subject to it.
Social exclusion is a violation of the demands of social justice in two ways: it conflicts with equality of opportunity and is associated with an inability to participate effectively in politics.
The relation between social exclusion and the distribution of income is not the same in all societies because it depends on the extent of commodification and the relative costs of public and private services.
Men's social isolation linked to higher heart disease risk (622 words)
In a study examining factors that influence successful aging, researchers found that among a group of men in their 70s, social isolation was linked to increased levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6) and fibrinogen in the blood.  These blood components are elevated during inflammation.
Social relationships have been linked to better health and protection against heart disease in many studies.  However, the unanswered question is how social relationships translate into biological processes that affect a person’s health.
Researchers failed to find any correlation between the degree of social isolation in women and their levels of the inflammatory biomarkers.
  More results at FactBites »



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