Addiction is an incredibly lonely disease. However, we typically associate addicts with two extremes when it comes to sociability. On the one hand we imagine the stereotypical “life of the party” who abuses substances to become sociable, friendly, and functional, or we have the depressive addict who takes substances alone, substituting healthy interpersonal relationships for chemicals. The truth is that most addicts may fall somewhere along this spectrum, but they all experience extreme feelings of isolation.
As anyone who has suffered from addiction can vouch for, having a crippling reliance on substances can stem from feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety. The problem with substances is that they typically only exacerbate these problems in the long run. A developing addiction leads to the addict becoming withdrawn, remote, and emotionally distant. As addiction progresses, it’s not uncommon for addicts to damage relationships, lose the support of family and friends, and spiral into a lonely existence centered around substance use.
We all experience occasional feelings of anxiety, loneliness, or unhappiness, but when those feelings last for prolonged periods of time we often find ourselves searching for something to ease the pain or lighten the burden. Self medicating is a method that people may choose to handle these feelings with. Drugs and alcohol are popular self medication tools because they temporarily distract us from the pain we are experiencing, whether it be relationship issues, financial trouble, general anxiety, or physical pain. The trouble with these drugs is that they only stave of feelings for a temporary amount of time, and leave us feeling more drained of feel good chemicals than we were in the first place.
Loneliness in the United States
A recent study by Cigna Health looked into the self-reported levels of loneliness and mortality within the United States and turned up some pretty staggering results. According to their research, loneliness could have roughly the same impact on mortality that smoking 15 cigarettes a day has. This would mean loneliness is potentially more adverse to your health than obesity! According to the survey, which was distributed among 20,000 Americans:
- The Z Generation and Millennial Generation report feeling lonelier than any other generation in history.
- Students report the highest levels of loneliness among Generation Z and Millennial respondents.
- There was no major difference in responses between men and women or among racial demographics
Isolation and loneliness play a large role in contributing to drug and alcohol addiction. Studies have shown that people who experience more social isolation generally deal with more mental health and substance abuse issues. However, we also know that abusing drugs and alcohol will contribute to even more feelings of isolation and loneliness. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds itself.
The Consequences of Loneliness
Loneliness is also linked to various health issues, including an increased likelihood of developing a substance abuse disorder. These health issues include:
- People who report feelings of loneliness are more likely to experience premature death, have a higher blood pressure, and have a compromised immune system.
- Being lonely could increase your risk of suffering a coronary disease or stroke b7 30%
- People who report feeling lonely are more than twice as likely to also have substance abuse disorder.
“We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.”
– Dalai Lama XIV
Why Social Support is Important
Like the Dalai Lama stated, social support is vital to our health as human beings. Social support empowers us to feel welcome, important, loved, and part of something greater. Addicts often use substances to artificially replicate feelings of importance, love, and happiness. But the great irony is that addicts only wind up lonelier than they felt before. Attaining real social support is important because it provides:
A Sense of Purpose
Being called a friend and knowing that you are loved are things that reinforce our sense of value. It’s possible to find purpose without others, but as social beings we are always going to find greater purpose in the context of a social structure.
Studies have even shown that the support of family and friends can cause antidepressants to work better. Long hugs also release oxycontin in the brain, calming down your fear center and releasing warm tingly feelings.
In this TED talk by developmental psychologist Susan Pinker, she lays out the premise that a good diet and exercise are not the biggest predictors of physical health, but that good social interactions and a healthy network of relationships are actually the most important predictors.
The Rat Park Experiment
One of the most infamous drug experiments that was proliferated during the “War on Drugs” era in the United States was the rat experiment. Rats were placed in a cage containing a feeder bottle of water laced with cocaine and, unsurprisingly, consumed the cocaine in enormous quantities until they died. This experiment supposedly displayed why even just trying an illicit substance could get you hooked, but it didn’t satisfy Bruce Alexander, a researcher at Simon Fraser University.
He recreated the experiment and tweaked one important variable: the cage. In the original experiment, the rats were in a small cage by themselves with no company, no space, and no exercise toys to play with. In Bruce’s new experiment, he constructed Rat Park, filled with everything a rat could desire from tunnels and turn wheels to other rats to play with. This time around, none of the rats got hooked on the drug laced water, which this time was a morphine drip. Alexander’s main point was that it wasn’t necessarily the drug that created addicts, but the cage they were trapped in that drove them to become addicts. When a rat had plenty of things to do, space to be free, and other rats to socialize with, it was far less likely to develop a crippling addiction.
Loneliness affects every person from time to time, but it’s important that you address feelings of loneliness and isolation in a healthy and constructive manner. Talk to friends and family members, or if that’s not possible reach out to a professional in the field of psychology, psychotherapy, or mental health. There are also online resources and forums where you can learn and openly discuss feelings with others.