Is Social Isolation Affecting Your Mental Health? There’s a Term For That

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To live in solitude, or not to live in solitude? Events in recent years have created an imbalance between the two. The after-effect of pandemic lockdowns forced people to spend more time alone, disconnected from society in ways that they would never have chosen deliberately. Before the pandemic, and since restrictions have eased, many experience social burnout from always socializing or making plans with others, disconnecting from themselves in the process.

There is a need to balance solitude and socializing on the path of growth. Ultimately, this is a question each person has to discover for themselves. To assist in this process, it’s useful to know when behaviors are dysfunctional or unhealthy. One extreme, hikikomori, is a form of pathological social withdrawal. Once thought to be unique to Japan, there’s speculation a wave of hikikomori might spread through the Western world, post-Covid.

Using the example of hikikomori, this article will explore the balance of healthy solitude, and the warning signs of when time alone becomes a problem.

What Is Hikikomori?

(Photo by Saneej Kallingal on Unsplash)

The term hikikomori was coined by Japanese psychiatrist Tamaki Saito in 1998, in response to a crisis amongst the youth of Japan. Growing numbers of young people avoided school and social events, often staying at home for months, or years, without communicating with their family or friends. Hikikomori is amplified by the impact of internet or gaming addiction, along with modern technology’s potential of preventing people from functioning healthily in the outside world.

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What makes hikikomori unique is that it is distinct from a number of mental illnesses. The Japanese Ministry of Health applies the term to people who have been in severe social isolation for six months or longer, without mental illness being the predominant cause. People who maintain friendships, or have underlying conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, wouldn’t fit the terminology.

In addition, hikikomori is distinct from agoraphobia, the anxiety-related phobia of the outside world, signified by an extreme fear of leaving the house. People with agoraphobia or other disorders might feel a yearning to socialize and feel restricted by their mental state. People experiencing hikikomori, however, might not have anxiety around socializing, but still spend the majority of their time at home, demonstrating extreme psychological detachment from the wider world.

In Japan, around 1.2 percent of people are estimated to be hikikomori, around a million people. A growing number of cases have been reported elsewhere in the world, in a worrying trend that suggests the risk factors of social isolation are increasing across the globe.

The Role of Emotional Angst

hand on glass window
(Photo by Saneej Kallingal on Unsplash)

Alan Teo, a psychiatrist and researcher at the University of Michigan, describes those experiencing hikikomori as having “extreme emotional angst.” Studies have found links between experiences of shame, such as failing exams or losing a job, as triggering extreme isolation. Rather than run the risk of experiencing a similarly traumatic experience, these people turn their back on society.

Herein lies a crucial difference between hikikomori and skillful solitude: the latter is chosen, willingly, for a number of reasons. Perhaps someone has a spiritual practice or creative process that requires long spells alone. Time alone is nourishing and leads to greater fulfillment. Hikikomori, however, is a response to difficult and unresolved emotions, a means of escape.

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Discerning the role of emotions, such as anxiety, in social withdrawal is crucial to ensuring time spent alone is deliberate. I’ve been through this process, always asking myself whether I was in solitude in a healthy way, or if I was avoiding situations due to social anxiety. Recently, I started to accept some decisions were the result of anxiety, and not to enhance my spiritual practice.

Hikikomori is gradual. Not many people become completely reclusive overnight, although significant events serve as catalysts. It usually begins by slowly withdrawing, or doing less and less, until returning to the world becomes a significant barrier. Always being vigilant of the true reason behind decisions ensures that a healthy balance can be found, which does require a degree of self-honesty.

Finding the Balance of Healthy Time Alone and Social Withdrawal

woman is home with her studio
(Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash)

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote French philosopher Blaise Pascal. The ability to be alone, in a skillful way, fuels self-connection, insight, creativity, and productivity. Understanding what balance works for you is a process of trial and error. Below are a number of pointers that will support you in finding this balance:

1. Assess both extremes

The amount of solitude you need, or the amount good for you, is not fixed, or necessarily tangible. Rather than discovering a definitive answer, instead, adopt a curious mindset. At a recent brunch, one of my friends shared a cool trick to find the center of gravity of an object, using a knife as an example. Placing your fingers on either side, if you slowly move them towards the center, they move at different speeds and stop at the point of balance. This is an apt metaphor.

Finding your center of gravity means looking at both extremes. Do you spend too much time alone? Or do you over-socialize? Enquire into this, and see what is revealed. One extreme is avoiding social interaction, or day-to-day living, through avoidance. The other is to avoid inner work, or connecting to the inner world, through immersion in friendships and activities.

2. Be honest with where you’re at

Assessing extremes requires honesty. Using my example above, I started to realize that I was turning down opportunities more because of anxiety, ahead of my genuine desire for self-connection or time alone. But before I accepted this, there was a period of denial, where I told myself my solitude was purely an indication of my spiritual practice.

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The same applies to the opposite. If you’re spending a lot of time socializing, denial might masquerade as ‘I’m just having fun’ or ‘I don’t need time alone.’ If you dig deeper, you’ll find the truth residing within.

3. Balance exposure with self-soothing

Exposure therapy is an effective way of overcoming many forms of anxiety. It’s a treatment whereby someone gradually immerses themselves in the situation they fear, in order to expose themselves to that environment, realize they’re okay, and adapt. It’s a process that has to be handled with care; too much too soon can set someone back. However, it is essential to push yourself to some degree, to avoid the slippery slope of hikikomori.

With self-awareness, you’ll be able to identify your tendencies. If you know it takes a lot for you to socialize, or you often feel anxiety beforehand, there will be a need to accept that sometimes you have to exert the effort to put yourself in situations that will prevent you from stagnating to an unhealthy degree. That could even be focusing on small wins, such as going to the shops and having a brief exchange with the person at the checkout.

That being said, at times, you have to trust your intuition. Sometimes certain situations are overwhelming. Maybe there are parties or socials that, for where you’re at, just don’t feel right. The more confident you become in discerning what feels genuine, the more likely you’ll choose to socialize, or be alone, skilfully.

4. Make time for inner and outer connection

As you understand yourself more and more, you’ll be able to gauge how much inner and outer connection you need. For some, this might be a few days per week with no plans. For others, it might mean entire weeks or weekends in solitude or retreat, with frequent times to recharge. In the process, understand what practices or activities feel nourishing, outwardly and inwardly.

For example, over recent years, I’ve partied much, much less than I used to. I prefer my outward connection to be one-on-one conversations over coffee, or if in bigger groups, to go out for dinner, do things in nature, and so on. If I choose things that don’t resonate, it can also mislead how much outer connection I need.

In terms of inner connection, it helps to have an idea of how you wish to spend time alone. Are you looking to simply decompress and relax? To work on a creative project? To meditate and reflect? Knowing how you like to spend this time, in a way that feels good for you, will inform you of your unique balance.

5. Always question your underlying motivation

Last but not least, aim to have self-awareness around your underlying motivations. Conscious living is understanding why you do the things you do. You might not always have the answers — you might simply be compelled or pulled to time alone, without being able to say why. But trust your inner compass. Appreciate that for many, retreating and returning to socializing is often a cycle of personal growth. You absolutely need spells to turn to the inner world for self-actualization.

Your motivations might be to avoid feelings of rejection, to avoid FOMO, to seek validation from the external, to avoid facing difficult feelings that surface when you’re alone. As long as you’re aware and honest, you’ll begin to understand what center of gravity you’re looking for, as you find what works for you, the balance of solitude and social, without falling into hikikomori, but instead enjoying the best of both worlds, inner and outer.

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