What Causes Social Withdrawal?

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Social withdrawal involves avoiding people and activities that you previously enjoyed. It can range in severity from limited social engagement to complete isolation.

Social connection and interpersonal relationships are crucial for human health and well-being. Poor social support is linked to various problems, including depression, loneliness, heart disease, substance use, and suicide.

Crisis Support

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Despite this, there are times when people pull away from friends, family, and other social connections. When people remove themselves from opportunities to socialize with others, they might be experiencing what is referred to as social withdrawal.

This article discusses some of the causes of social withdrawal, the effects, and the steps you should take if you notice that you or someone you know is experiencing it.

Signs of Social Withdrawal

Social withdrawal can happen in a variety of ways. In some cases, it might involve being more reserved in social situations. It can also involve complete avoidance of almost any type of social interaction.

Some examples of social withdrawal include:

  • Avoiding social activities that a person previously enjoyed
  • Turning down invitations to spend time with others
  • Making excuses to be alone
  • Being less talkative in group settings
  • Avoiding situations that involve meeting new people
  • Not initiating conversations and avoiding open-ended questions when talking to others
  • Not wanting to try new things
  • Avoiding any unfamiliar setting or situation
  • Taking jobs or tasks that require solitary work
  • Preferring to stay home and engage in solitary activities

Causes of Social Withdrawal

Research has suggested three primary subtypes of social withdrawal: shyness, avoidance, and unsociability. While social withdrawal due to shyness and avoidance has been shown to come with considerable risks, less is known about the impact of unsociability.

Some risk factors that can play a part in causing social withdrawal include:

Mental Health Conditions

Social withdrawal can be a symptom of several different mental health conditions, such as:

Suppose a person is experiencing social withdrawal along with other symptoms that cause distress or interfere with their ability to function in daily life. In that case, it is essential to talk to a doctor or mental health professional. The specific help and treatment they need depend on the nature and severity of their condition.

Shyness

Research has also found that socially withdrawn people tend to be shyer. People who are shy often avoid social situations because they are too anxious or uncomfortable in these settings. 

Others also perceive shy and withdrawn behavior as social deficits, which can then lead to further rejection and exclusion.

What then happens is that this social exclusion reinforces the underlying shy, withdrawn traits that a person already has. The result is that shy people become shyer and more socially isolated as time goes on.

Poor Self-Esteem

In some cases, people pull away from others due to poor self-esteem. Because they do not have much regard for themselves, they may fear being vulnerable around others or believe they will be rejected.

Having poor self-esteem can also contribute to symptoms of other mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, that can also worsen social withdrawal.

Family Dynamics

Environmental and personality factors can also play a role in social withdrawal. For example, people may withdraw from family or loved ones due to difficult or abusive family dynamics.

In one 2020 study, researchers found that people experiencing social withdrawal had high rates of:

  • Dysfunctional family dynamics
  • Family history of psychiatric illness
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Traumatic childhood experiences, including family maltreatment

Personality

Sometimes, people may withdraw simply because they prefer spending time alone. Introverts, for example, typically have a greater need for alone time than extroverts.

Regularly turning down social invites, however, is sometimes interpreted as rejection. People may eventually stop reaching out, which can lead to isolation. 

While unsociable people may prefer being alone, research has also shown that too much solitude has severe mental and physical health costs. Researchers refer to this as the paradox of solitude.

While spending time alone enhances aspects of the self and can lead to greater creativity, it can take a toll on an individual’s wellness.

Social Rejection

Social rejection can also play a role in withdrawal. In such cases, it is not that people necessarily want to be alone; it is that their peers reject them for some reason. 

The specific causes of social rejection can vary from one situation to the next. Examples include:

  • Negative interpersonal interactions: People are sometimes rejected because they negatively interact with others. This may be caused by misunderstandings or poor social/communication skills.
  • Outgroup exclusion: People are sometimes excluded because they are not members of the dominant social group.
  • Racism and discrimination: Prejudice against people who belong to different racial, ethnic, gender, national, language, or religious groups can also play a role in social rejection.
  • Shyness: People who are naturally shy, withdrawn, or anxious are more likely to be excluded.
  • Externalizing behavior: Those who display aggressive, disruptive, or hyperactive behaviors are more likely to experience social rejection. Children with ADHD, for example, are more likely to be rejected by their peers.

Developmental Issues

Social experiences are essential to child development, but children may also go through periods where their sociability varies. However, social withdrawal can also be a sign of problems, particularly when accompanied by other symptoms such as low mood and other changes in behavior. 

Withdrawing from others can be a sign of depression and anxiety, but it can also indicate problems in school, bullying, and peer pressure. Because social support and connection play such a vital role in child development, it is essential to recognize these signs early and get kids who are struggling the help they need. 

Social withdrawal is also a concern among older adults. As people become older, they are more likely to become isolated, particularly as they leave the workforce, lose loved ones, live alone, and cope with chronic illness. 

Prevalence of Social Isolation In Older Adults

One report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found that more than 33% of people over the age of 45 feel lonely, and almost 25% of those over age 65 are socially isolated.

Stress

Researchers also suggest that stress can play a part in the onset of social withdrawal. When faced with psychological stress, social withdrawal may serve as a way to cope.

People who are prone to social withdrawal tend to have less psychological flexibility. This means they are less able to adapt to current changes to achieve long-term goals. When faced with challenges, they are more likely to withdraw rather than adjust.

Unfortunately, social withdrawal often worsens stress and reduces people's ability to cope effectively with stress. Decreased social contact means people have less emotional and instrumental support to deal with stressful situations. 

Social Withdrawal Syndrome

Social withdrawal syndrome, first described in Japan and termed "hikikomori," involves confining oneself at home for six months or longer while severely limiting communication with other people. The phenomenon has since been observed in other countries and cultures as well.

While more research is needed to understand better the causes and treatments for hikikomori, a 2022 study identified several metabolic biomarkers of social withdrawal syndrome. Such findings may aid in better identification and treatment.

Effects of Social Withdrawal

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social withdrawal and isolation can contribute to a higher risk of:

  • Premature death
  • Dementia
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Depression, anxiety, and suicide

Coping With Social Withdrawal

If you or someone you love is experiencing social withdrawal, some strategies can help:

  • Working on relaxation techniques and coping skills to manage fear and anxiety: Strategies such as deep breathing, yoga, and mindfulness meditation can minimize anxiety and discourage the tendency to rely on avoidance coping.
  • Taking small steps to spend time with trusted loved ones: Reach out to the people you trust the most and ask them to help you as you begin to re-engage with the world.
  • Treating yourself with care and compassion: Having self-compassion allows you to acknowledge and relieve your own distress and suffering without trying to avoid it.

It is also essential to talk to a mental health professional, particularly if you are experiencing other symptoms such as anxiety, loss of interest, fatigue, low mood, substance use, or thoughts of suicide. A therapist can evaluate your symptoms, make a diagnosis, and recommend treatments that can help combat withdrawal behaviors.

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.

A Word From Verywell

The causes of social withdrawal can vary. Sometimes people withdraw from social situations because they prefer spending time alone. In many cases, withdrawal is linked to fear, anxiety, depression, rejection, poor self-esteem, and dysfunctional family dynamics. 

Whatever the cause, social withdrawal has the potential to lead to loneliness and isolation. It is essential to seek help, find ways to increase social connectivity, and explore ways to engage with others.

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Verywell Mind 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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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.