Whether you consider yourself a social butterfly or a wallflower, all humans are social beings. There’s hardly a moment in your life when you aren’t interacting with someone else or benefiting from their activities. It’s not surprising, then, that our happiness connects to our relationship with others.
Loneliness is a serious epidemic that is overshadowed in the modern world. According to a recent survey, nearly 75% of Americans are lonely, and Forbes reports show that the number of lonely people has tripled in the last four decades.
With feelings of loneliness are at an all-time high, some people to turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate and mask these painful emotions. However, addiction is an incredibly lonely disease that only leads to more isolation. We are here to explore the link between loneliness and addiction and the vicious cycle they can create — and to help you choose a life of recovery.
What Is Loneliness?
Some people think of loneliness as a social pain caused by a perceived lack of intimate relationships. In many ways, it’s a genuine motivational drive similar to your physical need for food or sleep. That’s why feelings of rejection can activate the same part of your brain associated with physical pain. If you feel like your need for belonging is not met, loneliness is a perfectly normal reaction.
Loneliness is a state of mind that anyone can experience. Depression, on the other hand, is a mental health disorder characterized by feelings of sadness, hopeless or dejection. There seems to be a connection between loneliness and depression, where a lonely state of mind can be a symptom of a deep, underlying depression. Consistent isolation can also lead to depression.
How Common Is Chronic Loneliness?
Americans are experiencing loneliness now more than ever. In a recent survey, nearly three out of four adults reported feeling a deep sense of loneliness.
The emotional impact of loneliness is apparent, but these feelings also have an incredible effect on your physical health. The support of others helps you to feel important, welcome and loved — like you’re a part of something greater than yourself. If you’re asking yourself, “What can loneliness cause?” know that it can lead to health concerns such as:
- High blood pressure
- Coronary disease
- Compromised immune system
Drugs, alcoholism and loneliness often go hand-in-hand, meaning those who experience this feeling are at a higher risk for developing a substance use disorder.
How Is Loneliness Linked to Drugs and Alcohol?
Feelings of isolation, depression or anxiety can lead to addiction. On the one hand, some people use alcohol or drugs to function in social situations, as these substances help them feel like the life of the party. However, those struggling with loneliness often use these substances as a substitute for healthy interpersonal relationships.
In general, those who struggle with loneliness are at higher risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
For instance, you may choose to:
- Continue drinking and using drugs despite the strain it brings on your relationships.
- Continue drinking and using drugs despite the damage it has on your physical and mental health.
- Ignore your social life and work in search of the next high, or to alleviate the withdrawal symptoms of a previous indulgence.
- Cut out association with loved ones as you increasingly look for new ways to fulfill your need for alcohol and drugs.
As these behaviors take hold, and you become lonelier, substance abuse also increases. Over time, alcohol and drug use become chronic, and addiction takes over. When this happens, you may continue to engage in worse behaviors, further affecting your physical, social and mental well-being. In turn, loneliness increases, and other negative behaviors flourish, causing you to sink deeper into addiction.
How Is Loneliness Linked to Mental Health?
Mental illness and substance abuse are two diagnoses that often go hand in hand, with one typically worsening the symptoms of the other. According to various clinical studies, roughly 50% of people diagnosed with a mental illness will also experience a substance abuse disorder at some point in their lives. This statistic goes both ways, with 50% of those who have an addiction later diagnosed with some form of mental trouble.
Mental illnesses can be isolating, even under the best circumstances. Sometimes, your symptoms won’t let you get out of bed, so seeking out companionship is totally out of the question. In other cases, you may worry about the social stigma surrounding your condition. Popular media often portrays people with mental illness as unsympathetic characters, a danger to themselves or others because of a chemical imbalance in their brain — and the fact that it moves the plot forward.
This situation contributes to loneliness among those with mental health concerns, people who are living with addiction and anyone who experiences comorbid diagnoses. If that feeling of isolation becomes too great, it can be a factor in the presence of suicidal ideation. Loneliness, mental health and addiction often go hand in hand, and it isn’t until recent years that medical professionals started to realize and pay attention to the risks.
Loneliness and Suicide Risk
While we’re more connected than ever, loneliness is such a pervasive problem that some studies declared it a public health risk. It’s difficult to address because there is no single cause for this feeling, and how loneliness affects you is as unique as you are. Life changes, physical abilities, work environments, mental conditions, physical illness, addiction and a million other variables all play a role in whether you experience it and to what degree.
Loneliness is often one of the first warning signs that there are other issues at play. “If somebody discloses to their friends or family, or a GP, that they feel lonely a lot of the time, that could be a warning sign that they are struggling in other areas of life,” said Dr. Timothy Matthews. Matthews co-authored a study out of King’s College London about loneliness as a potential marker for other problems.
Research has found that loneliness is just as dangerous as smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. Those who experience this feeling regularly are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those who don’t. Stress is also harder to bear when you’re lonely and don’t have a support system to help you deal with everyday life. Even things like a single overdue bill or catching the flu could make you more at risk for suicide or other negative side effects.
In addition to being a common symptom of a mental illness diagnosis, loneliness is also typical during addiction recovery. You tend to sequester yourself away from friends and family due to the negative stigma that surrounds substance abuse and recovery when, in reality, this is when you need support the most.
Why Do Addicts Isolate Themselves?
Alcoholics and those addicted to drugs are usually lonely people. Even if you use these substances in an attempt to combat loneliness, they only exacerbate these feelings in the long run.
Why do alcoholics isolate themselves? For many, the choice is out of their hands. As addiction progresses, many addicts find themselves losing the support of their family and friends, as well as damaging their healthy relationships. This may lead them even deeper into isolation, where their entire existence centers around drugs, loneliness and alcohol.
Treatment for Drug Addiction and Loneliness
Without support, loneliness can easily lead to addiction. Once addiction sets in, it’s harder to come out of it alone. And those who eventually become sober and lead a healthy life may relapse due to loneliness. Every step of recovery can become harder if you are lonely.
So, how do you come out of this cycle? Seeking help from the right treatment center to beat loneliness and addiction is one effective way. Having someone by your side during such difficult times can make it easier to seek help in the first place.
Ways to Overcome the Effects of Loneliness in Recovery
If you’ve entered into an addiction recovery program, it’s essential to address the harmful effects of loneliness. Fighting loneliness may help you fight addiction in the process. Also, creating positive relationships will have a meaningful impact on your life, which allows you to move past lonely feelings without turning to drugs or alcohol.
Here are some tips that may help you overcome loneliness during your recovery journey:
- Create a strong support network.
- Spend quality time with family and friends.
- Show up for recovery meetings and gatherings.
- Communicate with loved ones so they understand your situation and recovery process.
- Practice mindfulness meditation or pray to explore the difference between loneliness and solitude.
- Sign up for classes that will put you in contact with others and help you discover new interests and passions.
- Improve your mood through exercise or artistic endeavors like painting, dancing or writing.
If you need addiction medicine treatment, the caring and compassionate experts at Gateway are here to help. We understand the importance of addressing underlying issues like loneliness in our individualized treatment programs. At Gateway, you’ll find hope and healing that will set you on the path of recovery. Contact us today to learn more.