As we know from numerous studies, mental health is strongly connected to physical health. Recent studies on loneliness have searched for a deeper understanding of this phenomenon through the lens of social connections and interactions, finding that strong connections with others are beneficial to one’s health. Conversely, the absence of those connections can have damaging impacts to one’s physical health—specifically when someone lives in isolation. According to the American Psychological Association, social isolation may be an even larger threat to public health than obesity.
How does social isolation influence addiction? The following discussion explains how social isolation and loneliness manifest in one’s health and play a role in substance abuse.
Social connection is widely recognized as a fundamental need. As human beings, we are nurtured from birth through connection with others, and we need that sense of connection throughout our development and adulthood. When those connections are missing or lacking, we experience that deficit both mentally and physically.
Social isolation is defined as a lack of contact with other people. Loneliness is defined as the feeling of being emotionally disconnected from other people. In both senses, the person is experiencing consequences from a lack of interactions, which can provoke feelings of being left out, forgotten, or excluded.
Across health studies, an abundance of evidence shows a clear connection between lack of relationships and impaired health. As researchers have explored the topic of loneliness, studies have found that social isolation and loneliness put an individual at increased risk for premature mortality. Both social isolation and loneliness have been linked to cardiovascular disease. People who are lonely are more likely to suffer from a stroke or heart attack as compared to people with strong social networks. A recent study found a link between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease. Another study found links between social isolation and disrupted sleep patterns, abnormal immune responses, and cognitive decline.
Influence on Addiction
We see trends of social isolation and loneliness across cases of addiction. When we look at the recognized characteristics of addiction, addicts tend to display low recognition of problems in their interpersonal relationships and dysfunctional emotional responses to others. The behaviors, attitudes, and motives associated with addiction end up taking a costly toll on the addict’s social network.
As people sink deeper into substance abuse problems, important relationships suffer. Their addiction draws them into isolation, weakening and even obliterating the connections they once shared with family and friends.
One of the ways isolation impacts one’s health is through slowing their recovery from illnesses. When someone is surrounded by a strong support system, recovery from a disease or health event—such as heart problems—is typically faster and more progressive. In the same way, addiction recovery is extremely difficult for anyone trying to change their lifestyle alone. As an addict loses connections and withdraws from their community, drug and alcohol abuse typically accelerates to numb the feelings of loneliness, creating an agonizing cycle of depending on drugs and losing companionship.
Each of these findings supports a greater argument for the value of social connections—especially for someone struggling with a disease like addiction. Addiction treatment places high emphasis on repairing past relationships and building new connections with other people struggling with addiction. Through these connections, an addict is set up for more meaningful, lasting recovery in a supportive circle of peers and loved ones.
Have you observed someone who seems to be slipping away or withdrawing from friends or family? What can you do to reach out to that person? Learn more about helping someone in isolation.