Posted January 20, 2006
Solitude vs. Isolation
Andrew Martin, Psy.D.
Vol. VIII, No.2., March-April, 2004
Taken From St. Luke’s Institute, Silver Springs, Maryland
Solitude has long been a favored topic of poets, authors, mystics, and
spiritual writers. The benefits of solitude and being alone to commune with
nature or God come easily to mind, in Henry David Thoreau's work Walden or
in the spiritual writings of contemplatives and desert fathers. In each, the
desire to separate oneself from others in order to be reunited with the
natural or divine appears both life giving and rejuvenating. Isolation,
however, disconnects and is both painful and destructive. It is important to
realize what factors can lead to isolation and put people at risk for
psychological or behavioral difficulties.
Factors Leading to Isolation
The topic of loneliness, isolation and aging has been gaining attention in
both the scientific and popular media. A New Zealand article noted that
phone calls from people over 60 to a gambling hotline had jumped 30% in the
past 3 years. An article by the BBC claimed that as many as 83% of British
pensioners are now surfing the internet on a daily basis as a way to combat
loneliness. Loneliness among the elderly has also been identified as a risk
factor for a range of problems, from heart disease to depression and
suicide. As one ages, facing the loss of both family and friends, s/he
becomes more at risk for these or other problems. Often small, but
consistent efforts at reaching out to those at risk of isolation can make a
world of difference in preventing withdrawal. However, for some,
psychotherapy may be needed to help them address more serious behavioral
problems. Contrary to popular stereotypes, elderly clients are able to
benefit from both supportive and insight-oriented treatments.
Culture often dictates the basic building blocks of our experience:
language, expectations around gender roles, what is socially appropriate,
and what is or is not permissible to talk about. At no other time are we
more at risk for feeling different or isolated than when our environment
feels foreign to us. Persons coming to another culture, e.g., missionaries,
are easily at risk. Even persons who spend a significant time abroad can be
at risk for isolation when they attempt to reengage in a culture from which
they have been absent.
More than once I've heard diocesan clients refer to their experience of
being a "Lone Ranger" in the parish. Given the high demand for priestly
services, it would be easy for someone to over-work, compromising what
little time and energy he may have for replenishing himself with friends or
family. However, this risk is not reserved solely for diocesan clergy.
Members of religious communities commonly experience similar stresses that
tax their abilities to maintain rejuvenating relationships. Aside from the
demands of work, both diocesan clergy and religious often face a reality
that is unique to their vocation: the blending of professional and personal
space. When this is the case, isolation can become a tempting option to
escape the personal and political stresses that are present on a day-to-day
basis. In some cases, this can become a cauldron for addictive behavior.
Perhaps the most dangerous risk factor for isolation and loneliness lies in
the presence of mental illness or addictive behaviors. Mental illness and
addictions have far reaching effects on how we manage ourselves, our
emotions and needs, and how we conduct ourselves in relationships. If caught
early enough, and given the proper attention, it is often possible for
suffering individuals to alter destructive patterns, learn new and more
adaptive behavioral skills, and attain a greater degree of health and
Several emotional, personality, and behavioral problems can lead to
isolation. Depressed persons with low self-esteem frequently avoid contact
with others for fear of being embarrassed. They frequently feel overwhelmed
by the burdens of social gatherings and what may be expected of them. Also,
difficulty appropriately dealing with anger towards others may complicate a
depressed person's ability to relate effectively with others.
Most of us have experienced anxiety at some point in our lives. Those
suffering from diagnosable anxiety conditions, those who feel keyed up,
easily fatigued, irritable and tense, have difficulty sleeping and paying
attention may be quite crippled by their anxiety. Some people experience
excessive anxiety around particular events, such as public speaking. Others
experience a more pervasive feeling of anxiety that is generalized to a
broader area of their life. Anxiety may or may not also be associated with a
history of being traumatized. Similar to persons suffering from depression
anxious persons may experience the presence of others as burdensome and
threatening, choosing isolation as a more comfortable alternative.
Finally, one of the diagnostic criteria for addictive behaviors highlights
the disruptions that addictions cause in a person's life, especially since
addictions often become the primary object in a person's emotional life. The
gambler will invest more time and energy in the casino than in relationships
while for the alcoholic, the bottle is more important. Internet addicts
often prefer the realm of virtual relationships to the real interpersonal
world of family, friends, and community. Some addicts become paralyzed, out
of shame or fear, and do not ask for help. One of the many consequences of
addiction is increased isolation.
Isolation is both debilitating and dangerous. Solitude, however, is
essential for human persons to mature and to be intimate with themselves,
others and God.
Andrew Martin, Psy.D.
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