Addiction is a lonely disease. As anyone who has experienced can attest to, addiction causes people to become withdrawn, remote, and distant from others. Even if they appear social, an addict is constantly struggling with fear, denial, and guilt. In other words, they are locked in a prison looking out, a prison created by drugs and alcohol. As addiction progresses, it’s not uncommon for addicts to lose the support of friends and family members, damage relationships, and leave themselves isolated and in need of help.
A recent study completed by Cigna Health researched levels of loneliness in the United States and found some disquieting statistics. For one, loneliness has roughly the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The study also examined the impact loneliness has on different demographics.
- Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) and Millennial's (adults ages 23-37) are lonelier and claim to be in worse health than older generations.
- Most Americans are considered lonely.
- Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness.
- Students have higher loneliness scores than retirees.
- There was no major difference between men and women and no significant difference between races when it came to average loneliness scores.
Isolation and loneliness play a significant 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.
Why are Loneliness and Addiction connected?
Loneliness will continually feed itself if left unchecked. As a person becomes more socially withdrawn, they may develop unhealthy modes of thinking and inadequate coping mechanisms. To combat feelings of loneliness, a person may resort to self-medicating. One of the first experiments to propose the idea that perhaps isolation and unhappiness were primary drivers of addiction was conducted in the 1970’s. The experiment was a counter test to the infamous advertisement that used to run on TV. You know, the one with a rat in a cage?
After seeing the results of this experiment, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd. The rat was put in the cage all alone, without any activities, toys, or other rats. Bruce believed that being isolated could possibly be skewing the results of the experiment, so he conducted his own version. In Professor Alexander’s experiment, the rats were placed in Rat Park, a commodity, fully furnished getaway full of tunnels, toys, and wheels for rats to play in-Plus, plenty of other rats to spend a night on the town with. After leaving two different water sources (one a controlled substance, one regular water), researchers began tracking the rat’s behavior. What they found ran counter to the original experiment’s ultimate hypothesis. The rats mostly shunned the drug-riddled water, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats had ingested. Plus, none of them died. It’s no definitive answer for addiction, but it shows that the argument for addiction being purely a matter of chemical dependency is bunk.
A New Theory of Addiction
In a TED Talk given by Johann Hari entitled “Everything You Know About Addiction is Wrong,” the writer discusses the possibility that addiction is more integrally tied to loneliness than we give it credit for. From the speech:
“Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond. And when we’re happy and healthy we’ll bond and connect with each other. But if you can’t do that — because you’re traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life — you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. Now that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that’s our nature, that’s what we want as human beings.”
Viewing addiction as a behavioral symptom of a morally flawed individual only causes further feelings of isolation and self-hatred. When we see addiction as a response to a natural emotional condition that needs to be fulfilled, it de-stigmatizes addiction and opens the door to treatment options based on love and community.
The Consequences of Loneliness
Loneliness and isolation are linked to a number of mental and physical health issues, including raising your risk of developing a substance abuse disorder. Some of these issues include:
- People who feel lonely are more likely to also have a compromised immune system, high blood pressure, and premature death.
- Loneliness is linked to 30% increase in the risk of suffering a stroke or coronary disease.
- People who experience loneliness are twice as likely to develop a substance abuse disorder.
Without the company of others, human beings struggle to achieve bonds and connections with objects, experiences, and substances. When we consider that addicts are treated as criminals, it’s no wonder that addicts often return to their addictions following release from prison. We punish addicts in the hopes that the consequences will deter them from using drugs and alcohol, but all we’re doing is hurting them further and cutting them off from society.
At Landmark Recovery, we incorporate leading techniques and methods for giving the highest quality treatment available to our patients. Our program is built on a foundation of love and support. Our inpatient treatment centers are fully equipped and staffed to help you or a loved one overcome a substance dependency.