Addiction, Loneliness, and Isolation

In so many ways, loneliness is bad for you. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) states that “loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” Lack of good social connections is linked to major medical issues including a significantly increased risk of both coronary heart disease and stroke.1 Those who are socially isolated are also more prone to depression,2 a risk factor for substance abuse.3

Social withdrawal and addiction go hand in hand. In fact, loneliness is associated with high-risk behaviors.4 Conversely, having a community is a key component of recovering from addiction and avoiding relapse. Creating and maintaining social connections such as meaningful friendships is good for your health in general. It reduces mortality risk as well as the risk of developing certain diseases. It has also been shown to help speed recovery in some individuals who do become ill.1

In some cases, isolation may be unavoidable, for example during pandemics such as COVID-19 where families are strongly urged to stay at home. Making attempts to create a sense of community even when you are physically isolated can help to reduce negative feelings, and for those in recovery it can help prevent relapse.

Loneliness in America

Lonely woman at river

Unfortunately, a growing portion of the U.S. suffers from loneliness. A 2018 study performed by Cigna on more than 20,000 U.S. adults found that:5

  • 20% of Americans report never feeling close to others.
  • Close to half of Americans report feeling alone at least some of the time or feeling left out.
  • More than 40% reported a lack of meaningful relationships and a sense of isolation.

Rising numbers of individuals reporting loneliness may be impacted in part by the shrinking size of the American household. In the past 10 years, there has been a 10% increase in the numbers of people living alone; over ¼ of the U.S. population live by themselves.1

These numbers are troubling given the impact of loneliness and social isolation on a person’s physical and mental health.5

Isolation and Substance Abuse

Isolation differs from but relates to loneliness. Social isolation simply means being without social contact. Loneliness is a more subjective concept and refers to painful feelings associated with being disconnected, not belonging, or feeling isolated.6

Various experts have theorized that, for some people, drugs and alcohol may serve as means of:7

  • Addressing emotional deprivation.
  • Reducing the pain of social isolation.
  • Facilitating and easing increased social interactions.

Two researchers in the 1990s, Akerlind & Hornquist, stated simply: “dependence on drugs is, accordingly, an actual substitute for dependence on others.”

Loneliness is associated with anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol use, and suicide. One study found that, of the loneliest study participants, more than half were depressed and more than 40% were anxious and had suicidal thoughts.6 Another study found that loneliness is a significant risk factor for the initiation of and maintenance of substance use, and the authors state that all addiction treatment programs should consider this problem as they design their programs. 4

While isolation and loneliness can contribute to substance abuse, creating connections with others may serve as a protective factor in preventing substance abuse as well as in maintaining recovery from addiction.8

How to Combat Loneliness

Volunteers working together

Loneliness is not a life sentence. There are things you can do to connect to others and create a sense of community. Cigna offers the following tips:

  • Accept and acknowledge your lonely feelings and ask for help. You can consider reaching out to:
    • Friends and family.
    • A therapist or counselor.
    • Your employer’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
  • Use social media only when it makes you feel good and disconnect from it when it worsens your emotional distress. There are helpful apps, even therapy apps, that can assist you in handling the burden of feeling lonely or isolated. But certain apps may only make you feel worse, especially if you find yourself comparing yourself with others who “appear” to be better off or more socially connected than you.
  • Volunteer. Getting out and doing something that helps others, while meeting new people along the way, can do a lot for helping you feel more connected and for creating meaningful relationships.
  • Join a club or a meetup group. This is one area where social media can benefit you. You can find meetup groups or clubs that cater to specific interests and hobbies easily online.
  • Take care of yourself. Attending to your health can help you feel better not only physically but mentally and emotionally. You can stave off negative feelings through:
    • Exercising.
    • Going out in the sun.
    • Eating well, focusing on fresh foods.
    • Getting quality sleep.

Online AA Meetings and Other Remote Options

In some cases, it is just not possible to get out to a meeting, and for many people in addiction recovery, 12-step or other group meetings are vital to their continued sobriety.

If you are unable to leave your home for any reason to get to a meeting, don’t give up. You may be able to attend your meeting virtually. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous offer online meetings for those who can’t attend in-person groups. All you need is a wi-fi connection and a tool such as Zoom to have a video meeting.

Additionally, there are many online spaces where you can go to find extra support. In the Rooms is a free resource that offers 130 online meetings every week for people in recovery from addiction and related issues.

American Addiction Centers has also begun hosting free, virtual 12-Step meetings for individuals who are unable to get to in-person meetings, for example those impacted by  COVID-19.

Many American Addiction Centers facilities, including River Oaks, also have facebook groups for program alumni. Here you can communicate with other alumni and get support virtually.

Teletherapy is another option. Many therapists now offer the option of getting therapy remotely, via phone or video conference. Also, there are rising numbers of therapy apps that will connect you to a therapist at a reasonable monthly rate.

In the midst of the loneliness epidemic, there are more options than ever before for creating community. You simply have to take the steps to do so.

Need Immediate Help?

If you’re struggling in active addiction or you fear an impending relapse, get help in person. Virtual communities are a substantial help for those in recovery, but for those who are in crisis, leaving home and seeking out professional help may be necessary. To discuss how to get yourself or a loved one into treatment today, call us at 813-551-3608.

References:

  1. Health Resources & Services Administration. (2019). The “Loneliness Epidemic”.
  2. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk FactorsPublic Policy & Aging Report, Volume 27, Issue 4, 2017, Pages 127–130.
  3. Siennick, S. E., Widdowson, A. O., Woessner, M. K., Feinberg, M. E., & Spoth, R. L. (2017). Risk Factors for Substance Misuse and Adolescents’ Symptoms of Depression. The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine60(1), 50–56.
  4. Hosseinbor, M., Yassini Ardekani, S. M., Bakhshani, S., & Bakhshani, S. (2014). Emotional and social loneliness in individuals with and without substance dependence disorder. International journal of high risk behaviors & addiction3(3), e22688.
  5. (2018). Research Puts Spotlight on the Impact of Loneliness in the U.S. and Potential Root Causes.
  6. Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., Wiltink, J., Wild, P. S., Münzel, T., Lackner, K. J., & Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: prevalence, determinants and relations to mental healthBMC psychiatry17(1), 97.
  7. Ami Rokach (2002) Loneliness and Drug Use in Young Adults, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 10:3, 237-254.
  8. Johnson, B. R., Pagano, M. E., Lee, M. T., & Post, S. G. (2018). Alone on the Inside: The Impact of Social Isolation and Helping Others on AOD Use and Criminal ActivityYouth & society50(4), 529–550.

 

About The Contributor
Scot Thomas, M.D.
Senior Medical Editor, American Addiction Centers
Dr. Thomas received his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. During his medical studies, Dr. Thomas saw firsthand the multitude of lives impacted by struggles with substance abuse and addiction, motivating... Read More