The Disease of Isolation: Cycles of Loneliness and Addiction

Feeling lonely is common, especially amidst a global pandemic. No one is immune to feeling isolated from time to time, but what if it becomes a chronic feeling that you can’t shake?

Psychology Today defines loneliness as a “function of the affective need for companionship and belonging.” Left unaddressed, it can negatively affect a person’s self-worth and lead to depression.

The article further describes three types of loneliness:

  • Existential loneliness: Feeling alone in life with a lack of meaning
  • Emotional loneliness: Lacking relationships and attachments
  • Social loneliness: Lacking a sense of belonging to a group

It is important to note that being alone and feeling lonely are two separate things. Being alone from time to time is healthy and allows you to reconnect with yourself and enjoy solitude.

Being lonely is not dependent on being alone. For example, you could be surrounded by others and still feel lonely due to a lack of connection.

Loneliness has more to do with the state of mind and less to do with one’s surroundings.

Many people turn to substances, such as alcohol or drugs, because they feel lonely. They crave something to make them feel as though they can connect with others. However, addiction, known as “the disease of isolation,” inevitably causes more isolation.

Defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as “a complex condition, a brain disease manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequences,” addiction causes a person to become more isolated when they form an intense relationship not with a human, but a substance.

Does addiction cause loneliness? Or does loneliness cause addiction? Yes, and yes. The link between addiction and isolation is a complex one.

Here are some truths about addiction, isolation, and steps you can take to break this cycle.

Isolation Serves as Both a Cause and Effect of Addiction

It makes sense that loneliness can be a risk factor for addiction. When feelings of isolation emerge, some people turn to alcohol or drugs to mask these emotions.

Those who struggle with loneliness are generally at a higher risk for developing addictions to alcohol or drugs.

Once someone starts drinking alcohol or using drugs, they begin to increase their sense of isolation.

Basically, addiction leads to further isolation, meaning loneliness can both serve as the cause and effect.

Addiction Isolates People

Addiction further isolates people for several reasons. The addict may try to hide their addiction from others; alienating loved ones during the process.

To alleviate feelings of loneliness, addicts further engage in addicting behaviour. The compulsion to use alcohol or drugs is so intense that addicts detach from anyone or anything that gets in the way.

Addicts may lose the support of family and friends and form unhealthy relationships with those who support their addiction, thus leading to deeper isolation.

Breaking the Isolation-Addiction Cycle

Loneliness can easily lead to addiction, and once addiction encompasses one’s life, the cycle becomes harder to break. You may have heard that the opposite of addiction is connection, and there is truth in that.

Without connections with others, the chances of recovery are slim to none.

The tools for dealing with loneliness come from within, which is why those in addiction recovery often say that loneliness is one of the most difficult aspects.

Here are some steps to take to break the isolation-addiction cycle:

Connect with Yourself, First

One of the most crucial ways to combat loneliness is to get to know yourself on a deep level. Often, you lose yourself in addiction, and when you begin recovering, you learn about who you really are.

Meditating, journaling, and digging deep to understand who you are great ways to start this connection. If you cannot connect with you, connecting with others will be inauthentic.

Social Support is Key

In recovery, you may need to restore past relationships and build new ones. It’s common for addicts to push family and friends away, but as you recover, you may want to build back trust and repair previous connections.

Building a new social support network is also a key to long-term recovery that will combat loneliness. Recovery support groups are plentiful, both in-person and online, so building trust with others will not only combat loneliness but build your recovery program.

Disconnect From Unhealthy Connections

While connecting with those who support your recovery is vital, so is disconnecting from unhealthy relationships. This step can be difficult, but if someone does not support your recovery, they should be cut from your life.

Unhealthy relationships can be detrimental to recovery, and they do not provide a solution to isolation if they keep you from moving forward.

Express Your Emotions, Constructively

During active addiction, emotions are often squashed, hidden, and unidentified. Some recovering addicts have difficulty expressing their emotions and may not even understand what they are feeling at all. What may feel like anger may actually be sadness, or what may feel like grief may actually be resentment.

Learning how to express how you feel not only serves as a solid recovery tool, but it helps relieve isolation. Whether you are writing in a journal or talking to a trusted friend, being honest about feelings combats loneliness.

By nature, humans are social creatures who need each other. Connection with others is essential for mental and emotional health, but addiction destroys that connection.

Through connections and support, it is possible to break the cycle of loneliness and addiction, even in the world of social distancing.

You are truly not alone, and there are hope and freedom from isolation in recovery.

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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