Everyone needs some time alone.
But for those who seek time alone out of fear of social interactions, spending more time alone than usual can actually cause greater anxiety when socializing.
Researchers from the University of Buffalo evaluated how spending time alone is associated with feelings about socializing with others on that same day.
They found that people who sought alone time out of fear or anxiety around social interactions had an increase in anxiety when interacting with others on days when they spent more time alone.
“Although spending time alone is a very common experience, we still don’t have a full understanding of when solitude can be helpful versus harmful. We wanted to conduct a study that would help us better understand how people feel during social interactions on days when they spend more time alone than usual. This is incredibly important because whether we are able to enjoy our time with others has important implications for mental health and well-being,” Hope White, PhD, author of the study and a graduate student at UB’s psychology department told Theravive.
“We found that although many people find social interactions more enjoyable on days with increased alone time, those who tend to seek solitude in order to avoid social interactions do not. Instead, these individuals tend to experience more anxiety during interactions with others on days when they have spent more time alone.”
White says there are possibly a few reasons for this, including not using alone time in a beneficial way.
“Our study suggests that the effects of solitude may depend on why people choose to be alone. When people choose to spend time alone in order to avoid social interactions, rather than because they enjoy solitude, increased alone time may pose greater risks to their mental health. We think that this may be because these individuals struggle to use their alone time for restorative purposes and might spend this extra time alone ruminating, which can lead to anxiety.”
In undertaking the study, the researchers enlisted 411 participants aged between 18 and 26. They were asked to complete a daily report on their phone that detailed how much time they spent alone and the feelings they had after social interactions.
The authors say their work helps provide new information about the possible risks and benefits of alone time during emerging adulthood. This is considered a crucial life stage that involves young people using their new freedoms to decide how and with whom they spend their time.
“Understanding when and for whom solitude might increase risk for mental health issues or difficulty interacting with others is important in order to develop effective guidance to help those who may struggle during or after periods of alone time,” White said.
Whilst spending time alone is a common experience throughout life, the UB study suggests that a better understanding of the impact of alone time could have implications for potential interventions.
Among these is the idea that having an increased amount of time alone is not always beneficial.
The authors suggest that some people may benefit from having guidance on how they can use their alone time to benefit them both as an individual, but also in their interactions with others.
They say there is also the opportunity to help people manage any negative feelings they may have around socializing after an extended period of time alone.
“It will be very important for future research to consider how people spend their time in solitude. Whether they are using this time for productive pursuits like hobbies or ruminating on negative thoughts may influence whether increased alone time is beneficial for social interactions. Understanding why some people are better able to reap the benefits of solitude than others will allow us to develop methods to help those who struggle during or after solitude,” White said.