Isolation: What Causes It and What Are the Effects?

woman on rocks waves alone

As an introvert and sensitive person, I am familiar with the daydream of escaping to a quiet cabin in the woods or a rustic beach house to relax or work in solitude.  As a suburban mother of three, I know the bliss of having an empty, clean, calm home. As someone who has been let down by loved ones, I also know the comfort of withdrawing in to my inner world to recover from or avoid rejection.

As a sensitive person and introvert writer, I advocate for solitude and alone time to recharge and create. As a personal coach, friend and fellow human, I also advocate for connection and interaction. All of the above scenarios could be just as soothing and wonderful with the addition of safe, secure people/relationships. I spent years studying introversion. I have also spent years studying relationships.

Love and connection are mysterious and scientific

As much as we need rejuvenating alone time, we also need restorative connection (or co-regulation as the scientists call it). I believe in the beauty of love and sweetness, but I’ve also seen the neuroscience behind such feelings. I peeked behind the curtain and saw facts to back up the euphoria. I do not want to take away any of the magic. I want to convey how biologically critical safety and connection with other humans is.

Lethal jolt to our nervous system

I recently listened to an interview on Jayson Gaddis’ Smart Couple Podcast. The interview was with Dr. Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist at Indiana University Bloomington and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One comment Dr. Porges made, really got my antennae up. He said there are two cues our autonomic nervous system views as lethal. They are restraint and isolation. I’m going to focus on the isolation piece.

I’ve read studies that demonstrate how our brains and nervous system feel social exclusion the same as they feel physical pain. I know the average person only lasts about three days in total isolation before showing signs of depression or even psychosis.

Our neurological pathways form based on positive and negative interactions we experience. If we feel safe and secure within a relationship (lots of responsiveness, reassuring and consistency), we trust people and feel confident about interacting. If we have experienced rejection, unavailability and inconsistency too often, we tend to withdraw or become extremely self-reliant. Our brains build connections fortifying the expectations either way.

Do we really have quality time with our people?

We may think we are good at balancing alone time with people time. Are we truly connecting with others or are we just in the same space?

Dr. Porges brought up a couple of interesting points he sees contributing to society’s growing feelings of isolation and anxiety. One is the common occurrence of families dispersing within their own homes. Our homes are big enough now for everyone to have their own room. Mom may work in her home office. Dad may have his ‘man cave’ downstairs. The kids each have a bedroom or playroom they hang out in. I read somewhere that parents working from home is particularly difficult for children to process because the parent is home but not available to them. Their primal physiological reaction is to want to interact with their caregiver. It is easier for the parent to be away at a job out of the house.

Even if the family congregates in the family room or kitchen, much of the time is spent with heads bent looking at phones or tablets. Porges says our nervous systems pick up small cues from eye contact, facial muscle movement and even inner ear stimulation. If we are not in close face-to-face proximity, we miss those cues. Our nervous system is not soothed or satisfied. Think about how eyes convey concern and tenderness.

Texting

Keep this in mind next time you and your significant other get into a disagreement. If you fight via texting, for example, you miss opportunities to soothe each other with body and facial signals. Finding a way to postpone the discussion until you are near each other, could make all the difference in the outcome.

Texting is an everyday disconnector. I know we’ve all heard the rants against technology, but it does perpetuate a ‘lethal’ feeling of isolation. Dr. Porges said the phone took away the face from in-person interactions. Texting took away the face and voice from interactions. Both the face and the voice can trigger calm reactions within our nervous system. They can trigger fear and discomfort too.

We all know the discomfort of hearing a certain tone in our lover’s or parent’s voice. Perhaps it alerts us to their forthcoming anger or it reminds us of when our parents used to yell at us as kids. If we only hear the tone and do not see the laughter or worry in someone’s face, we only have a portion of the relevant information. Our bodies react subconsciously in a protective — fight, flight or freeze— way. If this happens too often, we stay permanently on high alert, which drains the heck out of us and our adrenals.

Here’s another thing to think about when texting — how quickly do you or your partner respond to texts? Our bodies and minds were built to interact simultaneously. Texting and emailing take away the element of synchrony.  If we do not get an immediate response from someone, we may intellectually create a plausible excuse for their delayed reaction but subconsciously our primitive brain sets off a small alarm. It feels like isolation to the body. The cumulative effect of this kind of inconsistent responsiveness is stress, anxiety and deterioration of our body’s resilience.

Hopeful not helpless

This sounds like doom and gloom for our disconnected culture, but we can see it as the knowledge that will lead us to relief and greater fulfillment. We need to intentionally turn toward the people we care about. It’s that simple.

I remember reading a parenting guide that preached listening with our eyes. I’ve also heard of listening with our chests/hearts aimed toward our companions. Both give us a better chance at relieving feelings of disconnection. There is something magical about looking into someone’s eyes and seeing them looking back.

 

Are there times when your body/nervous system could subconsciously feel isolated? How often do you feel connected with others? How could you increase your feelings of belonging and connection? How could you make others feel secure? 

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. Sheket
    April 29, 2017

    Hm. I will have to give this some thought. Good points in here Brenda!

    Reply
    • Brenda Knowles
      May 1, 2017

      Hi S! Sending you warm energy!

      Reply
  2. Jody Rivers
    April 29, 2017

    Thank-you for this very informative article. As a fellow highly sensitive introvert, I can relate very well to the isolation you so clearly portray. About two years ago, my ex-girlfriend of 15 years left me. The separation was quick and brutal. No time to prepare, or to assimilate and process her sudden departure. She was simply gone. The emptiness in my home was incredibly palpable and felt like a heavy weight had settled over my entire being. The old adage about the one being left always being the last to know certainly applied in this instance. I would discover later that everyone knew she was leaving, friends, family, everyone but me.

    So here I sit two years later, still alone, very isolated, with absolutely no desire to interact with the world or other people unless I absolutely must. There is no family, friends or any other significant person I can turn to for the necessary human interaction you so poignantly describe in your piece. Two years after the massive shock of her departure I am still utterly, unbearably alone. Though in all honesty, I believe my innate trait of introversion probably spared me from the worst of it all, as I am well able to be alone and content with my solitude. My high sensitivity however only serves to amplify my already intense emotions. That said, I despair of ever being able to connect or feel intimacy with anyone ever again.

    To understand the depths of my grief over the loss of this particular relationship would require further explanation. Suffice it to say, the backstory of our lives together was one forged in undeniable affection and love. It remained that way until the tragic death of her adult son who was killed in a traffic accident. That horrific event would define what was left of our time together as clearly as dark clouds portend a coming storm. Despite doing everything in my power to assist the love of my life during her walk through the valley of death, it was not, could not ever be enough. The loss of a child leaves a hole in a parent’s heart that can never fully heal. A similar tragic event happened to my own parents when my sister was struck and killed by a drunk driver at the tender age of 13. Her death left a horrible void in all of us who were left to pick up the pieces, and our family was never the same. So although I partially understood her grief and heartbreak on a visceral level, there was a point on her dark path where I could no longer follow. This tragic event occurred midway through the course of our relationship, and there is a clear defining line of before and after forever etched into my heart and mind. Things would simply never be the same again, and that was that.

    So here I sit typing these words to whom exactly? Some unknown person whose face I will never see, eyes that will never reflect my pain back to me, a touch that will never be felt. I think that is what I miss the most, her gentle touch or a simple hug or the way we could so easily be alone together. So while utter and complete isolation does come with risks and perils, it also offers safety from an often terrifying world that seems to have lost its way. This is the path I have chosen, a path I shall never diverge from lest I risk relinquishing my battered heart to another lover or friend, only to have it broken anew. That is simply not a risk I am willing to take.

    Reply
    • Brenda Knowles
      May 1, 2017

      Dear Jody,
      Thank you for sharing your personal story. I can understand your fear of experiencing the kind of pain you felt when your girlfriend left. I believe I just heard a statistic that claimed 79% of relationships do not survive the death of a child. I am not sure how accurate that is but it is not hard to believe. I am sorry you had to go through all of the losses you mentioned. I’ve heard some tragedies cannot be overcome, only carried. Humans tend to fear potential loss more than believe in potential gain. I can see why you choose to remain alone versus trying to meet someone new for companionship. For your own well-being I hope you still maintain friendships and strive to create new ones. We all need to know we matter to someone. Loving touches and encouraging words go a long way toward warming our souls. You are in my thoughts Jody.

      Reply
      • Jody Rivers
        May 1, 2017

        Thank you, Brenda, for your kind words and thoughts. It has been a tough road, but I am a tough guy so no worries. My problems pale in significance to what many others on this planet have to deal with on a daily basis. I would like to be able to follow your advice and cultivate new friendships, I simply lack any desire to do so. Nor do I have any friends or family in my life. It is just safer to go it alone I think. Again, thank you for caring, and especially for the continuing inspiration provided by your incredibly insightful blog. Take care, Brenda.

        Reply
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