Post-traumatic stress disorder, better known as PTSD, is a common mental disorder affecting around 8% of the population at any given time. The result of a stressful experience, such as fighting in a war, physical or sexual assault, surviving a natural disaster or anything else that results in fear, acute stress or anxiety, PTSD can be debilitating when symptoms are at their peak.
PTSD can have many causes, and different people will respond in varying ways to the same events. Something like escaping from a building fire may not leave a lasting mark on one person but may cause signs of PTSD in another. Regardless of the cause, however, symptoms tend to be more alike than different. One of the most notable symptoms for a majority of those affected by PTSD is self-isolation.
What Is Self-Isolation?
Self-isolation refers to the tendency to separate oneself from others. Rather than going to parties, taking part in team events, hanging out with friends or spending time with family members, individuals will instead choose to spend time alone.
While it’s normal for everyone to crave solo time on occasion, self-isolation goes far beyond forgoing a few events. Those who self-isolate completely retreat into themselves, allowing the stress involved in seeing others and taking part in normal activities to prevent participation in previously pleasurable behaviors.
Why Do Individuals Self-Isolate?
In many ways, self-isolation is a form of self-preservation. When one is alone and not in the presence of other people, whether friends and family or the general public, the chance of triggering events feels much less likely. Things like seeing people die, facing abuse or getting into a fight probably won’t occur when staying isolated and alone.
Self-isolation is also the result of feeling alone, abandoned and misunderstood. Those with PTSD are often acutely aware of the fact that the experiences that led to post-traumatic stress are unique to them, and even those who may have been present won’t necessarily understand the response. By isolating themselves, PTSD sufferers can avoid negative responses or continued efforts to explain feelings.
Self-isolation may not be a conscious choice. As individuals struggle to deal with their feelings, being alone seems like the easiest option.
PTSD and Isolation in Veterans
Veterans are among the most likely to develop PTSD and, unfortunately, are at the highest risk for serious side effects. Self-isolation is extremely common after returning from a war zone; men and women who return home will push friends, family and even their spouses away, ruining relationships and exacerbating the issue. Being around other people after coming out of the service can be overwhelming and uncomfortable without PTSD, but those who have seen awful things while deployed will have a more difficult time in a way that the average civilian can’t understand. This leads to even higher incidences of isolation in these populations.
Why Trying to Reach Out Doesn’t Work
Reaching out is often the first instinct of those who are facing self-isolation in loved ones. It’s not uncommon for friends and family to try to make an extra effort to plan events, stop by to visit or otherwise inspire more social behavior. However, this is unlikely to make a difference.
Those who are self-isolating will see efforts to change their behavior as further evidence that no one understands what they are going through. They may believe that their differences are now more pronounced than ever and that there is no hope for feeling happy or normal again. Those who are deep in isolation will likely rebuke all invitations, choosing instead to fall further into this troublesome behavior pattern.
Why Self-Isolation is Dangerous
Self-isolation as a coping method may seem harmless, but this is generally not the case.
First, those who self-isolate often find themselves consumed by their challenges, rather than working to find the strength to get help. As isolation accelerates, encouraging getting therapy or medical treatment will become far more difficult. As such, taking action early is often the best way to get in front of this symptom of PTSD.
In extreme cases, isolation may pose a threat to physical health and wellness. Isolation can lead to depression, which in turn can lead to troubles at work and job loss, financial problems, lack of self-care and failure to seek medical attention. Extreme cases may even entertain suicidal ideations that could, if left unaddressed, lead to action.
The Cycle of Isolation
The cycle of isolation refers to how those with PTSD may isolate themselves in cycles depending on how they respond to these three stages: hyperarousal, intrusion and constriction. In the hyperarousal stage, individuals are very guarded and on high alert, and they may be likely to lash out with aggression. During the intrusive stage, it’s common to relive traumatic events in conjunction with graphic nightmares. The constriction phase results in numbness and an absence of self. This is the stage most commonly associated with self-isolation, even though this can happen at any given time throughout the cycle. However, manifestation can differ significantly from one individual to another, and reactions can vary greatly, even among those who have endured similar experiences.
The cycle of isolation is important for friends and family concerned about a PTSD-affected individual to understand. As this kind of behavior can move in circles, a decrease in isolating behaviors may not mean the individual is in a better state of mind. As such, getting help should still be encouraged, even when trends appear to improve on the surface.
How to Help
If you or a loved one is living with PTSD, moving forward can seem next to impossible. However, there is hope on the horizon. Getting help can alleviate the pain that accompanies traumatic memories and anxiety surrounding triggers, leading to a happy, healthy future.
Inspiring someone to get help with social withdrawal isn’t easy, but helping to lay out the situation can make a difference. Be clear about your outside perspective — you are aware that you don’t understand — but reinforce that you know help is out there. Provide information about resources, like counselors and treatment centers, and be clear about your unwavering support. Check-in as often as possible, whether that’s daily, weekly or even monthly, depending on the situation. With proper assurances and testimony about what getting help can do, PTSD-affected individuals may be willing to consider treatment.
As a comprehensive mental health treatment center, FHE Health offers inpatient and outpatient PTSD resources. Please contact us today to learn more.