Loneliness, Isolation and Addiction
The Link Between Isolation and Addiction
Although it can be difficult to determine whether loneliness can lead to addiction or whether addiction itself contributes to social isolation, both share common risk factors.1 These factors may include genetic vulnerability to mental illness, early exposure to trauma or chronic stress, or issues in areas of the brain that relate to both substance use and mental illness.1
For most people, occasional loneliness is a part of life. It can occur because of life changes, like moving, changing jobs, or grief and loss, and lead to feelings of depression and anxiety. People with diagnosed mental health conditions have been found to have higher rates of substance abuse, with about 1 in 4 people with severe mental illness having a co-occurring substance use disorder diagnosis.1
Effects of Isolation and Addiction
Isolation and addiction can impact your mental and physical health. Your relationships with others, your self-esteem, and even your ability to function at work or school may be affected. Some people even experience health consequences, such as poor adherence to treatment or medication, due to isolation and addiction.1 Some other potential effects of alcohol misuse and isolation include: 1,4,5
- Guilt and shame. This may lead to increased drinking or using drugs to cope or change the way you feel.
- Altered neural pathways in the brain. A change in brain chemistry can result in a desire to keep using drugs or alcohol, even at the expense of your relationships with others.
- Harmful behavior. This may include accidents, injuries, or antisocial behavior.
- Relationship Problems. Your relationships with others may be affected because of addiction such as romantic, social, or family relationships.
- Social problems. Financial insecurity, losing your job and even homelessness can be examples of social problems resulting from addiction.
Isolation in Addiction Recovery
Relapse is common in early recovery, and being socially isolated can put you at a higher risk. A 2018 study of 195 people found that social isolation more than doubled participants’ risk of relapse.7 Connecting with others in similar situations may help you on your path to sobriety. You might consider joining a peer support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been found by many to reduce isolation and maintain abstinence from drugs or alcohol.7 Relating to other people in recovery and learning from their experiences can not only provide insight into your own challenges but also help heal your relationships with others.
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are typically guided using the 12-step model, an approach that prompts participants to admit their wrongs, take accountability for their actions, and make amends with others.8 As members increase their sobriety time, they become “sponsors,” or mentors, to others in early recovery. There is significant evidence that not only receiving peer support but also providing it to others in this way can reduce loneliness and isolation and aid in maintaining abstinence from drugs and alcohol.7 Others might find peer support through joining sober activities like participating in religious services, joining clubs or other group activities, and spending time with sober friends and family members.2
Treatment for Addiction and Isolation
If you are experiencing alcohol use disorder and isolation, there is hope for recovery with appropriate clinical treatment and peer support. Talk to a medical or mental health professional to determine what treatment option is right for you. Treatment options may include: 9
- Inpatient Treatment. Patients live in the facility full-time, and it is typically a 30-day, 60-day, or 90-day program. In an inpatient facility, you have medical supervision and participate in behavioral and other therapies during the day.
- Outpatient Treatment. Rehab where the patient, in some cases, may attend 3 to 6 hours per day, participate in group, family, and/or individual therapy. Patients typically go home when not in treatment and are able to work or go to school.
- Individual Counseling. Also held in an outpatient setting, individual counseling is 1-on-1 with a therapist, rather than in a group, and focuses on addressing areas of functioning that have been impaired by substance use, such as interpersonal relationships.
- Alcoholics Anonymous, 12-Step Meetings, and Other Peer Support. Peer support groups reinforce what is taught in clinical treatment and provide participants with a place to talk about challenges and life experiences.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, April). Common comorbidities with substance use disorders research report.
- American Psychological Association. (2019, May). The risks of social isolation.
- Journal of Aging and Health. (2016, March). Association of alcohol use and loneliness frequency among middle-aged and older adult drinkers.
- Addictive Behaviors. (2018, July). Shame mediates the relationship between depression and addictive behaviours.
- United Kingdom National Health Service. (2018, August 21). Risks: alcohol misuse.
- International Journal of High Risk Behaviors and Addiction. (2014, September). Emotional and social loneliness in individuals with and without substance dependence disorder.
- Youth and Society. (2018). Alone on the inside: The impact of social isolation and helping others on AOD use and criminal activity.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. (2016, August). The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).