Emotional Isolation
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Emotional Isolation

Emotional isolation is a state of isolation where one may have a well-functioning social network but still feels emotionally separated from others.

Population-based research indicates that one in five middle-aged and elderly men (50-80 years) in Sweden are emotionally isolated (defined as having no one in whom one can confide). Of those who do have someone in whom they can confide, eight out of ten confide only in their partner. People who have no one in whom they can confide are less likely to feel alert and strong, calm, energetic and happy. Instead, they are more likely to feel depressed, sad, tired and worn out.[1][2][3] Many people suffering from this kind of isolation have strong social networks, but lack a significant bond with their friends. While they can build superficial friendships, they are often not able to confide in many people. People who are isolated emotionally usually feel lonely and unable to relate to others.


Emotional maltreatment/abuse of children and adolescents has been in existence since antiquity (Beswick, 2009; Mause, 1974). It has garnered considerable public debate and still remains researchers' area of focus. The identification, assessment, and treatment of emotional maltreatment are of ever-increasing importance to counsellors, psychologists, health professionals and even parents. Empirical information has shown that emotional abuse, especially among children, exists in developed and developing countries. In America, the rate of emotional abuse was estimated to be 103 per 1000 among 2-17 year olds (Finkelhor et al., 2005). A 2 year study of United States army cases of emotional maltreatment by Jellen et al. (2001) revealed that primary emotional abuse was found in 26% of cases while emotional abuse plus physical abuse or child neglect was discovered in 14% cases.

Identification of emotional abuse

Studies on identification of emotional abuse have shown that it is multidimensional in nature. Warner and Hansen (1994) assert that identification and reporting of maltreatment are two critical steps in improving the health status of maltreated children. Garbarino et al. (1986) in Iwaniec (1997) and Tomison and Tucci (1997) proposed five categories of emotional abuse to include rejecting (behaviours which constitute abandonment of the child); isolating (behaviour which prevents the child from participating in social activities); terrorising (behaviour which threatens the child with severe punishment); ignoring (behaviour which makes the caregiver to be psychologically unavailable to the child); and corrupting (behaviour which encourages the child to develop antisocial behavioural patterns).

In relationships

Emotional isolation can occur as a result of social isolation, or when a person lacks any close confidant or intimate partner. Even though social relationships are necessary for emotional well-being, they can trigger negative feelings and thoughts and emotional isolation can act as a defense mechanism to protect a person from emotional distress. When people are emotionally isolated, they keep their feelings completely to themselves, are unable to receive emotional support from others, feel "shut down" or numb, and are reluctant or unwilling to communicate with others, except perhaps for the most superficial matters. Emotional isolation can occur within an intimate relationship, particularly as a result of infidelity, abuse, or other trust issues. One or both partners may feel alone within the relationship, rather than supported and fulfilled. Identifying the source of the distress and working with a therapist to improve communication and rebuild trust can help couples re-establish their emotional bond.

Effects on the mind

Cacioppo and his team has found that the brains of lonely people react differently than those with strong social networks. The University of Chicago researchers showed lonely and non-lonely subjects photographs of people in both pleasant settings and unpleasant settings. When viewing the pleasant pictures, non-lonely subjects showed much more activity in a section of the brain known as the ventral striatum than the lonely subjects. The ventral striatum plays an important role in learning. It is also part of the brain's reward center, and can be stimulated by rewards like food and love. The lonely subjects displayed far less activity in this region while viewing pleasant pictures, and they also had less brain activity when shown the unpleasant pictures. When non-lonely subjects viewed the unpleasant pictures, they demonstrated activity in the temporoparietal junction, an area of the brain associated with empathy; the lonely subjects had a lesser response [source: University of Chicago].

Social withdrawal is avoiding people and activities one would usually enjoy. For some people, this can progress to a point of social isolation, where people may even want to avoid contact with family and close friends most of the time. They may want to be alone because they feel it is tiring or upsetting to be with other people. Sometimes a cycle can develop where the more time they spend alone, the less they feel like people understand them. When people withdraw themselves from social interaction they tend to stay inside a set place (like a bedroom).


  1. "Case examples of isolation" Hawthorne, G., PhD. (2008). Perceived social isolation in a community sample: Its prevalence and correlates with aspects of peoples' lives. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 43(2), 140-50. doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00127-007-0279-8
  2. "What are the effects of isolation in the mind?" 6 April 2010. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/isolation-effects.htm> 4 October 2016


  1. ^ Helgason, Á. R.; Dickman, P. W.; et al. (2001). "Emotional Isolation: Prevalence and the Effect on Wellbeing among 50-80-Year-Old Prostate Cancer Patients" (PDF). Scandinavian Journal of Urology and Nephrology. 35 (2): 97-101. doi:10.1080/003655901750170407. PMID 11411666. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-11-07. Retrieved .
  2. ^ Helgason, Á. R.; Adolfsson, J.; Dickman, P.; Fredrikson, M.; Arver, S.; Steineck, G. (1996). "Waning sexual function - the most important disease-specific distress for patients with prostate cancer". Br. J. Cancer. 73 (11): 1417-1421. doi:10.1038/bjc.1996.268. PMC 2074472. PMID 8645589.
  3. ^ Helgason, Á. R.; Adolfsson, J.; Dickman, P.; Fredrikson, M.; Steineck, G. (1998). "Distress due to unwanted side-effects of prostate cancer treatment is related to impaired well-being (quality of life)". Prostate Cancer and Prostatic Diseases. 1 (3): 128-133. doi:10.1038/sj.pcan.4500226. PMID 12496905.

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