Alone Time vs. Isolation: How to Find the Balance

“Me time” is a form of self-care, but being alone can have a dark side.

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Some nights, the thought of meeting up with friends for dinner may sound so unappealing. You might have had a long, stressful day at work, and all you want is some time alone, a bowl of spaghetti, and a glass of wine.

Sometimes, this break from others is a healthy choice. Everyone needs a little “me time,” right? But other times, it’s not about self-care or catching up on your favorite shows: We’re choosing to isolate ourselves.

“As humans, we are really good at protecting ourselves when our pain gets really big,” says Jennine Estes, MFT, a marriage and family professional counselor at Estes Therapy in San Diego. “Sometimes, isolation can serve us like building a wall around ourselves. It’s a protective barrier.”

When Alone Time Is Healthy

“Me time” is recognized as a form of self-care, and deservedly so. Everyone needs time to recharge occasionally (yes, even extroverts). There are many health benefits of socializing, but everyone has a limit, and going over that limit can result in fatigue, irritation, or increased stress. Taking a break from friends, family, and coworkers can be a great way to reset.

Alone time “comes from a nurturing place within ourselves,” says Estes. “It comes from that part of ourselves that tells us we deserve to take care of ourselves. It comes from a positive cycle of self-love.”

If your intention is to give yourself a little break so you can jump back into your work life, relationships, or hobbies with a little more vigor and purpose, then some alone time with stress-relieving activities is probably a healthy choice.

That said, be careful not to overdo it. “We know that it’s healthy and natural for humans to want some time alone, but we also know that we are social creatures—and too much time alone is actually very damaging to our mental health,” warns Estes.

When Alone Time Becomes Isolation

When you’re choosing to avoid others because you’re trying to put up a wall between yourself and other people, you’re isolating. It might feel cozy and protected on the inside of those walls because you have control of what happens; it feels safe and reliable. You don’t have to worry about impressing others, the possibility of rejection, or being disappointed.

But choosing isolation again and again traps you in those walls and starts to backfire. “Isolation caused from depression and anxiety comes from a place [of feeling] ‘less than’ and not deserving,” says Estes. “Depression and anxiety often tell us to isolate ourselves because we are ‘not enough’—not deserving enough, not important enough, not fun enough to be around others.”

In a way, isolation is like self-punishment. You might not consciously have these thoughts; it might just feel like a vague sense of dread, nerves, or malaise. It might feel good at first to send a text to cancel the plans, but when you’re choosing isolation, the relief might not last.

Studies have found connections between social isolation and rates and severity of depression. One 2016 study from Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology found that socially isolated young adults who felt lonely were more likely to be depressed.

Unlike healthy alone time—which recharges you—isolation can start to haunt you. Because it’s subconsciously done as a punishment, it may leave you feeling “tremendously sad and lonely” in a way that’s “very harmful to [your] wellbeing,” says Estes. Learn more here about how isolation may make anxiety and depression worse.

If you catch yourself feeling tempted to isolate, resist the urge. “Listen to what depression and anxiety tell you to do—and do the opposite. If depression is telling you to isolate, that’s your cue to call a friend,” says Estes.