Is Loneliness a Risk Factor for Substance Abuse

Loneliness is different from being alone. Whether you’re on your own or surrounded by others, you can feel lonely. The feeling of isolation may occur regardless of the amount of social contact that you have. Solitude can be restful, enjoyable and fulfilling. But loneliness is a negative state of mind that often coexists with fear, anxiety and depression. It increases your risk of mental and physical health problems, including addiction.


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What Is Loneliness?

Everyone feels lonely from time to time. It’s natural to experience temporary bouts of discomfort and social isolation. This usually happens when your needs for social connection, affection and belonging aren’t met in the way that you expect.

Loneliness feels different for everyone. In some cases, it generates a negative mental state that causes you to push people away even though you want to feel connected. Chronic loneliness occurs when these distressing feelings don’t go away.

Some signs that you’re struggling with chronic loneliness include the following:

• You feel isolated whether you’re alone, with friends or in a crowd.
• You don’t feel seen or heard by others even when you put yourself out there.
• You feel like your attempts to connect with others aren’t reciprocated.
• You don’t have anyone to confide in.
• All of your friendships seem superficial.
• You don’t know people on an intimate level.
• You feel like no one understands you.
• You feel drained after social interactions.
• You have low self-esteem or self-worth.

How Does Loneliness Relate to Substance Abuse?

Loneliness and substance use have a close relationship. On one hand, loneliness can contribute to addiction. On the other hand, substance abuse disorders can lead to loneliness.

How Can Loneliness Lead to Addiction?

People with severe or ongoing loneliness have a higher risk of developing the following health problems:

• Elevated stress levels
• Social anxiety
• Heart problems
• Cognitive dysfunction
• Impaired executive function
• Sleep problems
• Reduced immune function
• Weight fluctuations
• Depression

Many of these physical and psychological impairments are also risk factors for substance abuse. When you don’t feel well, you may also have trouble coping with powerful emotions. Therefore, the distressing feelings of loneliness are exacerbated.

All of this can lead you to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Substances can numb the pain of loneliness. They can also give you something to do when you’re bored. Alcohol use is so pervasive in our society that it can be hard to find social events where it’s not present. Therefore, people who suffer from loneliness may drink just to have an excuse to get together with others.

But relationships that are based on using together are often unsatisfying. These types of connections perpetuate the cycle of loneliness because they don’t fulfill your emotional needs.

How Does Addiction Cause Loneliness?

Using substances may feel as though it reduces your problems. But it’s a false, surface-level solution. Instead of eliminating your distressing feelings, it pushes them aside. Substance abuse may force you to ignore your problems, making them worse in the long run.

Even if you felt fulfilled by your interpersonal relationships before, you may struggle with loneliness and addiction. Logistical issues that arise because of your substance abuse can make it difficult for you to focus on friendships.

For example, you may not have time for your old friends because your leisure activities revolve around getting and using drugs. People may pull away from you if they find out that you have been lying to them. Financial problems often get in the way of relationships.

Furthermore, individuals with addictions often isolate themselves to hide their problem. If you don’t want your loved ones to see you while you’re intoxicated or going through withdrawal, you may make excuses to avoid spending time with them.

As addiction brings about changes in your lifestyle, you may become even more disconnected from your peers. Conflicts with loved ones about your substance abuse can leave you feeling misunderstood. After a while, it might feel like substances are your only friends.

The Dangers of Loneliness in Recovery

Human connection is a core psychological need. It’s especially important when you’re in recovery because it combats loneliness.

You might assume that if you meet with a therapist regularly, work on your coping skills and focus on self-care, you will have no problem sustaining your recovery. While these methods are often effective for helping people get and stay sober, they don’t overshadow the need for human support.

Improving your self-esteem and self-efficacy enhances your emotional intelligence and resilience. Taking care of your needs builds your self-worth and confidence. But most people have a desire to share their strengths with the world. At the same time, they often rely on others when they need help.

Loneliness in recovery can make you feel as though you have hit a brick wall. The purposelessness that goes along with loneliness and addiction increase your risk of relapsing.

How to Manage Loneliness and Addiction

Seeking treatment from a mental health professional can help you fight both loneliness and addiction. Getting help in the early stages of your distress can prevent it from getting worse. Addressing loneliness in counseling or therapy gives you the knowledge and tools to combat it in the future.

Here are some tips for combating loneliness as you heal from your addiction:

• Talk about it with your therapist.
• Learn coping skills to avoid getting stuck in a lonely mindset.
• Offer your assistance to loved ones when they need it.
• Schedule activities throughout your day to keep you distracted.
• Join a book club, interest group or class that meets regularly.
• Volunteer to help community members in need.
• Set self-development goals to improve your sense of purpose.
• Work on techniques for regulating your nervous system.
• Turn to a trusted loved one when you’re feeling isolated.

Even though recovery is a highly personal challenge, you don’t have to go through it alone. But if you still feel lonely while you’re surrounded by support, reach out to us. At Burning Tree West, we help clients build strong relationships with themselves and others. The foundations that you build now will help you forge a fulfilling, connected future.