Loneliness NZ

Meaning of physical isolation

Physical isolation is the circumstance of you being alone and physically cut off from people – where you live, or in periods when you have time-out in various situations.  Physically isolated people often can have ways of communicating with other people through telephone or using the internet, and can sometimes still get visitors.

The extent of your wellbeing depends on the circumstances of your physical isolation. Physical isolation can create social isolation, emotional isolation or loneliness for you. Physical isolation takes two forms:

  • Physically isolated and satisfied; and
  • Physically isolated not by choice.

Physically isolated and satsified

Many people of all ages live alone, and are physically isolated. You may be one, and you are also happy, physically well and able to take care of yourself adequately and safely; and not only are you able to say to others that you are fine; you truly believe it yourself, and are inwardly satisfied with the amount and quality of relationships you have with others, and with your own thoughts.  Even on the rare times you feel loneliness as a temporary lapse in your happiness, you have confidence that you can reach out to other people, and through those connections you will feel positive for a significant period of time afterwards.  

Equally important to your view… are the interactions you do have with other people. These are generally positive, and the people in your life feel that you still connect with them well. Being physically isolated in this way is generally healthy. Yet, there are circumstances that you should be aware of:

  • Others are concerned what might happen to you;
  • Others are concerned what is already happening to you; and
  • Being mindful that change can happen at any time.

...others are concerned what might happen to you

Complexities arise for some of you despite being perfectly happy within yourselves, and with your physical isolation. This is when your family, whānau and friends start worrying about you, and they are aware no-one is able to check up on you.

If you are elderly, have deteriorating physical disabilities or declining mental health your loved ones may be seeing signs of you becoming more frail and less able to be independent on your own, or in your current home. If this is you, when the concern is around “dangers” that might not yet have manifested, but might well happen, which could put you into an unhealthy situation, usually your living arrangements need to be addressed now or in the future.

So while Loneliness NZ recognises the important issues here, you are not lonely or feeling socially isolated, so we are not intending to directly help in these situations. There are many organisations which are better equipped to deal with changing people’s physical living circumstances to make them safer in their future, and we would direct your family to these.

...others are concerned what is already happening to you

Regardless whether you say you are satisfied with being physically isolated, when other people believe that your health and wellbeing is compromised, action to improve your situation is likely to be necessary. Signs that you are actively socially isolating yourself include:

  • Hoarding;
  • Obsessive or compulsive behaviours;
  • Forgetting basic hygiene; and
  • Excluding people you have previously involved significantly in your life.

These are just a few examples. In these cases, your situation becomes quite different to the days when you were happier and healthier.

Loneliness NZ recommends that you have a frank honest look at what is happening for you, and seek help from us to improve your well-being. For more information, see I’m feeling lonely‘. 

...being mindful that change can happen at any time

You need to be mindful that you, as a previously happy physically isolated person, could start feeling socially isolated and/or lonely for any number of reasons.   Any change could start you having different thought patterns which could now negatively affect your wellbeing.

  • Change within your mental or physical health (such as your doctor suggesting a blood test) could start you worrying more about your health, and fear of being ill or dying alone might set in.
  • Change happening to people you know (such as your child moving to another city) could start you worrying about how much contact you will have and the fear of not being able to visit, or be visited, heightens your awareness of being alone.
  • Changed physical circumstances (such as losing internet connections, roads being cut off or transport being stopped) could start you feeling more trapped, and less connected with others than you had been.

What you could consider is whether these changes in thought processes, and changes in your behaviour (such as wanting to visit a doctor more frequently) become your new normal… indicating the likelihood that you are not necessarily likely to automatically return to your former state of satisfaction.

Consider whether you feel confident telling people if you do start getting lonely or feeling socially isolated, and how well that would be received.

If you are feeling that you have changed in how well you previously coped Loneliness NZ encourages you to understand yourself better and seek help from us how you might prevent yourself from getting into a declining situation of loneliness or social isolation. For more information, see ‘I’m feeling lonely‘.

Physically isolated not by choice

Physical isolation is sometimes used as a form of punishment (for example sending an offender to prison) or as a way of diffusing a deteriorating behaviour (putting a child who is misbehaving in a separate room). 

The combination of the person’s ability to cope alone (ultimately relax into solitude), the length of time of being alone, the place where the isolation occurs, and who is doing the isolating, will be a determining factor on whether more damage than good is being done.

Enforced physical isolation for some will seem an eternity after only ten minutes (eg many young children), others only after an hour; while for others several days on their own will be tolerable. 

While Loneliness NZ is not making a judgement whether the actual decision to put people into physical isolation is good or bad, we would consider it is important to be monitoring the benefits. When the physical isolation is frequent and/or prolonged, as perceived by the individual in isolation, they are likely to feel socially isolated, loneliness, and for some the onset of becoming emotionally isolated occurs.

In the case of there being a reasonable possibility of damaging an individual’s health and wellbeing. Loneliness NZ would expect that the continued physical isolation be stopped, and future ways of dealing with the problems be addressed. We encourage you to talk to us.For more information, see ‘I’m feeling lonely‘.

Related terms

One way to further understand what physical isolation means is to explore related terminology (by selecting one of the coloured rectangles below).

These terms may or may not overlap with the meaning of physical isolation, but give further insight into the nature of loneliness and other kinds of isolation.