Symptom: Social Withdrawal

Social withdrawal is a negative symptom of Schizophrenia and can be present in Schizotypal disorders as well. It is when a person shuns social contact and spends large quantities of time by themselves, largely ignoring the world around them.

I think, for much of it, this tendency is closely tied to social anxiety. After all, we tend to avoid what we fear and brings us discomfort. But that’s not the whole reason behind it. At least for myself, sometimes I just get so tired or so distracted that social interaction becomes more of a burden than a pleasure. It simply takes too much effort. My brain, like a sore muscle, screams out for rest so it can recuperate.

For myself, I often have periods of time, a day or two usually, sometimes up to several weeks, where I can’t stand the thought of looking at another human being. During those periods of time I find communication, even by text, extremely difficult.

Usually, these periods of isolation coincide with depressive periods. I’ll huddle in my room, in front of the computer, immersing myself in fiction. Sometimes I’ll spend days just playing video games. Other times I’ll binge-watch TV or anime series or Youtube videos, or spend every waking hour just reading mindless, fluffy romance novels. Just anything that keeps my mind turned off, away from reality. If one pastime fails to distract me well enough, I’ll move on to another before I have to think too deeply on what it is I’m doing.

Any time I find myself under any kind of pressure, I risk lapsing into this isolation tendency. Exam periods were especially harrowing. I had to retake a couple exams, but somehow I managed to get through them in the end.

Too much social contact can also be a serious strain. I get exhausted just by being around a lot of people, even when I don’t have to talk to anyone. Talking to a lot of people over a period of time seems to be especially draining though. Even just spending too much time with family can leave me exhausted and irritable, to the point where simply having another person just quietly breathing in the same room becomes unbearable.

I’m extremely introverted by nature, and so I actually need some time to myself, to recharge and relax.  Otherwise I end up mentally exhausted and stressed out. Generally, a day or two a week, without social obligations is enough to keep me going, so I try to plan around that.

My most recent bout of social withdrawal, was likely brought on by too much social contact. I just simply couldn’t bear the thought of seeing, let alone talking to another human being. I felt almost like I’d shatter, if I did. Thankfully, usually after a couple days, or sometimes a week or two, depending on my level of exhaustion, I perk up again and become able to face the world once more.

I think, there are several points to keep in mind about social withdrawal. One is personality. If you have an introverted personality like mine, you might benefit from more time alone. But too much time alone isn’t good for anyone, regardless of personality.

During my worst time, I spent weeks by myself, hardly speaking a word to anyone. During that time, I found my speech greatly deteriorated. When I finally did speak, I spoke slow and haltingly, spending more time searching for words. My more psychotic symptoms became more pronounced, I felt increasingly detached from my body and the world around me. The more time I spent alone, the harder it became to simply set foot out the door. I was “lucky” enough that my local supermarket was open 24/7 at the time, and so I’d do my grocery shopping in the middle of the night to avoid other people as much as possible. I could hardly function day to day and that’s when I finally realized, I couldn’t keep going at the rate I was.

This leads me to another point to keep in mind: Day to day function. If your social withdrawal impacts your day to day life negatively, if you find your mood deteriorating, find tasks such as grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, showering etc. increasingly more difficult, that’s obviously a big problem. Any time you spend alone isn’t in and of itself a problem, as long as it doesn’t affect your quality of life and your relationships.

If you can, holding up your behavior before and after getting sick can also be a good idea. Were you much more social before you got sick? If so, then the social withdrawal most likely due to your illness. As with any symptom, proper treatment might greatly reduce, if not completely eliminate it. Although, it goes without saying, that restoring a ruined social life is very hard work. Like most any course of recovery, it takes time and practice. You don’t generally start running the moment the cast is off your broken leg either.

Like our muscles, our brain requires use to function properly. This includes the parts of our brain governing language, speech and social skills. The more they’re used, the better and easier it becomes.

Since my biggest bout of isolation, I’ve come a long way, simply by interacting with the people around me, weekly talks with my psychologist, frequent visits to my dad and the like. I was also very lucky to get into a social skills training group, where we meet every week and take up various problems we face in social interaction. We’ll take a problem one of us faces and together discuss strategies and ways to overcome it.

For instance, maybe someone is facing a pending family gathering and is nervous about seeing family members they haven’t seen or talked to for ages. So then we’ll talk about what makes the person nervous, the negative thoughts they face like: “They’re not going to like me” or difficult questions like: “What do I say if they ask how I’ve been?”, “do I tell them about my illness?”, “if I don’t want to talk about it, what do I say if they ask?”

Usually, by the end of it, we’ll have a plan of action for the person and a whole host of good tools and ideas for everyone else.

To summarize: Social withdrawal may be a symptom of illness, but it’s only a problem if it’s bad for your relationships and quality of life. If it does become a problem, it can be treated with training and working out good strategies. Cultivating good relationships is crucial for a good quality of life regardless of illness, health or personality.

 

Lastly, these are, as always simply my own thoughts and experiences. I am by no means an expert and my experiences may not completely reflect yours. Take what you can use and leave the rest.

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