Substance abuse and loneliness have a complex relationship. Both conditions exacerbate each other, with loneliness often leading to or worsening patterns of substance abuse, and substance abuse can contribute to conditions that promote loneliness.
How Does Addiction Impact Social Connections?
Someone who is struggling with addiction may also struggle with a chronic illness. This is a disease that affects the brain, changing behavior as the reward system becomes stimulated faster and more often by certain substances, like alcohol or cocaine. It can also change behaviors such as gambling or shopping. They are unable to control the compulsion to engage in these behaviors at a certain point. People who struggle with addiction to substances will develop problems at work or in school, like the inability to complete work projects or poor academic performance. Their behavior will change, and they may suddenly have new friends with whom they spend more time. Their physical and mental health will suffer. Their relationships with previous friends and family members will become strained due to behavioral changes.
While struggling with addiction can lead to social isolation and loneliness, mental illnesses that can be triggered by isolation and loneliness can also lead to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, thus leading to addiction. Social problems, including a lack of a support network that can cause isolation, are closely linked to substance abuse and addiction struggles.
How Does Loneliness Relate to Substance Abuse?
Loneliness can be both a trigger and an effect of struggling with substance abuse. Loneliness is defined by medical practitioners as a state of mind characterized by the dissociation between what an individual expects from a relationship and what the individual experiences in that relationship.
While many people think of loneliness as part of being alone, solitude is not inherently lonely. Some people report feeling alone, even though they have friends, romantic partners, spouses, and children, or they consistently see people for social reasons. Loneliness is, most often, a state of mind, but it has to do with not having emotional needs met.
One in three Americans report being affected by loneliness. One in 12 reports being severely affected, including feeling isolated. People who feel lonely may have personality or behavioral characteristics. They may:
- Be irritable often
- Struggle with depression
- Act in a self-centered way
- Have other mental or emotional health dysfunctions
Loneliness has been associated with a 26 percent increase in mortality. Increased physical problems — like heart disease, diminished sleep quality, increased overall inflammation (which can increase chronic pain) and decreased immune system function — have been reported in people who experience high levels of loneliness.
While some people abuse drugs to relax in social scenarios and feel better, which should lead to more social interactions and, one would assume, more platonic relationships, this type of substance abuse does not stop people from feeling lonely. People who are depressed may abuse drugs or alcohol alone at home, or they may live in a geographically isolated area, so they do not have the social support they need for someone to notice that their behavior has changed.
People who drink too much or abuse drugs to “loosen up” or enjoy a social event may feeling lonely, while also feeling anxious about being around people. Addiction and loneliness are tied together as cause and effect.
The Effects of Substance Abuse on Relationships
There are many risk factors associated with addiction, including family history, mental illness, genetics, and environmental pressures like intense personal stress. Once someone develops an addiction to a substance, many of their social and psychological problems can become exacerbated by changes to their social group, including strained relationships with family and lost friendships. Loved ones who are concerned about someone struggling with substance abuse problems may express their concern, but they may just receive denial, lies, and irritation in response.
Those struggling with addiction often push away their loved ones. At the same time, losing connections with those they care about can increase their isolation and thus drive them toward more serious complications.
A study conducted in 2015 found that six times as many people who struggled with opioid abuse attempted suicide compared to people who did not misuse these drugs. Those with a dependency on opioids were two to three times more likely to die by suicide compared to those who did not struggle with this condition. Suicide rates are one indication of the psychological impact of loneliness on mental and emotional health.
Addiction Can Be Triggered By Loneliness and Isolation
The psychological pain of being lonely can lead to self-medication. Elderly adults who receive prescriptions for opioid pain medications may begin to misuse these drugs because they do not have family members who live near. Close friendships and social support would improve their mental and physical well-being. Without those relationships, they may turn to opioid abuse.
Drugs and alcohol change brain chemistry, typically adjusting how much dopamine and serotonin are available in the brain. These two neurotransmitters are involved in mood regulation. Without enough serotonin or dopamine, the person may feel depressed or anxious, but with more serotonin or dopamine, the individual will feel euphoric, energized, relaxed, and satiated. Personal interactions help us manage these neurotransmitters, but drugs can provide a quick, dangerous, addictive high when human relationships are not as easy to access.
Many studies report that people who experience social isolation struggle with worse mental health, including higher rates of depression and anxiety. They also report higher rates of substance abuse, which is closely tied with mental illness struggles.
People who report feeling lonely are twice as likely to have a substance abuse disorder than those who are not lonely. This may be associated with higher rates of psychological struggles, which lead to self-destructive behaviors to cope with extreme emotions.
One risk of developing an addiction is family history, which goes beyond just genetic heritage. This extends to how you were raised. People who have inconsistent or unpredictable caregivers are at higher risk of developing a substance use disorder to cope with their feelings of helplessness and loneliness. Caregivers who struggle with addiction or mental illness tend to be the most inconsistent and unpredictable, so negative coping mechanisms may develop in children to manage their struggles with feeling emotionally connected to their family.
How Social Support Reduces Substance Abuse
You may assume that someone who is lonely lives alone and has few friends or family. This is not inherently the case, as loneliness is related to how much emotional support and connection are received through relationships. Someone who spends time with a lot of other people, but does not connect with them emotionally, may still feel lonely.
Social Connections are Crucial Because They Help:
- Build your sense of purpose in the world
- Help you feel good by managing brain chemistry, especially through interactions like hugging.
- Improve your mood and reduce stress
- Reduce your risk of chronic conditions and extend your life
If social support can be improved, substance abuse could decrease.
What You Can Do to Help
Social Ties are Crucial to Your Overall Health. If You Feel Lonely, Medical Professionals Recommend That You:
- Reflect. Understand that feeling lonely is temporary and can be moderated by finding new social activities or asking friends and family for support. Tell your loved ones how much it means to you when you spend time together.
- Connect. Do something helpful or kind for someone else without expecting anything in return.
- Interact. Work with others in your community or family, volunteer to help someone in need, or find a book club or local social event where you can meet new people who have something in common with you.
If you struggle with any of these steps and find that you begin to have low physical energy, anxiety about going out, anhedonia, unrelieved sadness, or cravings for drugs or alcohol to feel better, you should speak with a counselor. There could be an underlying mental health condition that impacts your ability to stay present in relationships and receive positive support from others, but these conditions can be managed.
If you have already begun to rely on substances to feel normal or happy, seek help from a detox and rehabilitation program. Loneliness and substance abuse are intertwined, but there is hope in recovery. You can leave substance abuse behind and find contentment in sobriety.