Loneliness, Addiction, and High Quality Social Interactions
Loneliness can be common through addiction.
Social interactions are incredibly important to our happiness. For many of us, the lockdowns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic through 2020 and 2021 hammered this home. Loneliness often leads to depression.
A recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships has given us hard evidence for this. Increasing amounts of social interaction – specifically high-quality social interaction – can result in much lower rates of depression, loneliness, and anxiety.
As might be expected, the quarantines we all suffered through throughout the COVID-19 pandemic led to higher levels of loneliness and depression. These findings are completely consistent with pre-existing literature.
Previous studies have underlined the importance of regular, high quality social interactions and relationships for an individual’s well-being and happiness. For those in recovery and in minority groups, this can be especially challenging
Studying loneliness, addiction, and depression
In the study, research led by Adam Kuczynski, looked into ‘identify the components of daily social interactions that are associated with changes in depressed mood and loneliness’. They recruited over 500 adults in America, in King County, Washington, to study.
These participants spent 75 consecutive days completing daily surveys, prompted by text messages each evening. The research team took and analysed measures on depression, loneliness, social interaction quantity, perceived responsiveness, and vulnerable self-disclosure.
The results were unsurprising.
Participants who took part in more social interactions and self-disclosures, and who found that people were more responsive to their needs, showed lower levels of depression and loneliness. It is quite clear, therefore, that social interaction can be a strong protective factor for both.
The quality of social interaction plays and important, too. Those with higher quality and quantity social interactions were less likely to report depression and loneliness. These two variables showed an incredibly strong relationship with one another.
There are some limits to this study. Though plenty of participants were used, suggesting that all patterns found were strong, frequency of testing may affect results. Nor can the reverse be ruled out.
What if, rather than being less depressed by having more social interactions, we have more social interactions when we are less depressed?
The data was also all collected in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it may be unclear how applicable it could be to normal life.
However, the study ably characterises what we all sort of already knew to be true: it shows the unique way in which social interaction quantity and quality affects depression and loneliness. It goes some way to showing the extent to which these all interplay.
Social interactions – high quality, frequent ones – should be a cornerstone in any treatment for depression and loneliness. As both are linked with anxiety, it may also be core in treating various anxiety disorders.
If you’re coming through addiction recovery, you will be open to depression and anxiety for multiple reasons. You may also be isolated. Therefore, it seems the perfect time to underline the effects of loneliness in recovery.
Loneliness and addiction
Plenty of people are lonely. By some estimates, as many as 60% of us are. Though some experience it as fleeting, it can be chronic for others.
In psychological terms, when we talk about loneliness, we are talking about the troubling experience of having fewer social relationships than you might like. Loneliness can be caused by many reasons – bereavement, a change in living circumstances or jobs, rejection, and so on.
We all feel lonely sometimes.
However, it can be worse for some people. Loneliness can be worse for those going through addiction recovery. Loneliness can be a cause of addictive behaviour in the first place. Addictive behaviours can in themselves be isolating. And, when you begin recovery, isolation can kick in once again.
Substance abuse and loneliness in particular share a complex relationship.
Loneliness as a risk factor for addiction
Loneliness can be damaging in very explicit terms. It can harm the mind and body. For instance, those who struggle with loneliness are likelier to suffer weaker immune health, poor sleep, arthritis, and obesity than those who don’t. It can lead to unhealthy behavioural patterns, such as excessive eating, resulting in conditions like type II diabetes.
Loneliness can also aggravate addiction. It can lead to a greater risk of dependency on addictive substances such as nicotine, alcohol, and various hard drugs.
Why is this? In part, the sadness and depression, anxiety, sense of exclusion, and the invalidation of self that come from loneliness can be ruinous for your mental well-being. You may find yourself turning to coping mechanisms, self-medicating and so on. You will also be less likely to have people checking in on you, making sure you are OK – something we all need from time to time.
In short, it leaves you more vulnerable to addiction.
Loneliness and co-morbidities
We’ve mentioned a few co-morbidities – obesity, diabetes, and so on – that are associated with loneliness. This pairing is very real and very dangerous. It also works as a compounding force for ill-health.
Loneliness is hard enough. If it caused no other symptoms but the depression and isolation we know it for, it would be brutal. However, it pairs all too easily with these kinds of co-morbidities. It often accompanies and is accompanied by other health concerns.
For example, loneliness can make anxiety worse. Anxiety can cause you to keep to yourself, keeping you lonely. The same is true of depression. Each fuels the other, makes the other worse, exacerbating an already troubling set of symptoms.
Loneliness, in short, can make the struggles you face during addiction and recovery that much worse.
Loneliness can lead to substance abuse; substance abuse can lead to loneliness
As we have seen, loneliness and addiction can work together in a vicious, self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating cycle. Each leaves you vulnerable to the other.
If you are feeling lonely, depressed or anxious, misunderstood, left out, unseen, you will be far likelier to turn to addictive substances. You may fall prey to drugs or alcohol as a way to blot out these feelings, to diminish their symptoms, to try to grow comfortable in your world.
These addictive behaviours, however, will generally cut you off from the world even more. Addiction is an isolating experience, an often inherently lonely life. It can turn those few in your life away from you as the financial, legal, and behavioural problems it causes alienate your friends and family.
Therefore, the solution ends up fixing nothing. Rather, it serves only to make the problem worse.
There is a third element to this. Often, addiction brings its own lifestyle with it. You may have a circle of friends around you. If you drink, this might be at the local pub. If you’re into harder drugs, this might be the subculture attached to it. The only way to stay within these circles is to keep up your substance abuse.
If you quit, you risk losing your main source of social interaction. If you are used to drinking as your main pastime, then suddenly you sober up, your old drinking pals are suddenly out of reach. Isolation kicks in once again.
Beating loneliness takes positive action
Those suffering from addiction often have little to positive action in their lives. They are dependent to a greater or lesser degree on a substance that is ruining their physical and mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, overcoming loneliness can take a level of effort they often cannot live up to.
They may feel that the ability to beat loneliness is out of reach due to addiction. Despite warnings about substance abuse, this kind of abuse may be the only answer they see. They may not believe there is any other way to deal with their loneliness. It might not even occur to them that there could be.
Finding healthy ways to overcome loneliness after addiction
Luckily, there are plenty of ways you can overcome loneliness, no matter your path. There are lots of ways to meet new people – supportive, positive people – that don’t rely on addictive substances. Making use of them will make it easier for you to stay sober. They will also help you overcome the isolation that may have underpinned your original addiction.
These can be high quality, high frequency interactions, too – the very kind most likely to alleviate depression and anxiety.
What you can do
Firstly, you can be a catalyst for someone else. You can remind those around you that they are not alone. You can be their affirmation. In turn, they can be yours – sometimes all it takes is reaching out to those around us.
You could also take a good look at the reasons behind your loneliness. If it’s due to grief or separation, for example, perhaps consider counselling. You should be able to find a mental health professional or group in your area that specialises in whatever you need.
If you’re a in recovery from addiction, you are fortunate in that, unfortunately, you are in good company. There will be plenty of people in your area with similar stories, with similar issues. There will also be plenty of groups set up to help people deal with these issues. If you are overcoming alcohol addiction, for example, look for a local support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Likewise, if you struggle with depression or anxiety, a local talking group should be on hand. They will listen to you, see you, and support you.
If you’re looking to boost your mental health, you should take note of your physical health, too. Look up what’s on at your local leisure centre. Fancy gyms can be expensive. Council ones are generally far more economical. Recoverlution offers a platform dedicated to exercise and well-being for people in recovery.
Lastly, reconnect with people. There may be lots of people who turned their backs on you due to your addiction, or who at least struggled to maintain a healthy relationship with you. Reach out to them. Explain that you’re going through recovery and invite them back into your life. It might take a little work, but so does the whole recovery process. And it might just save you.
It needn’t be forever
Loneliness feels like a heavy blanket, like you can’t remove it, like it will smother you. It feels like it will never go away.
So does addiction. Yet you needn’t look far to find plenty of success stories of people who are going through recovery. If you’re going through recovery, you have probably built a level of strength and resilience that few others have.
Know this: your path through addiction recovery is ongoing but healthy, and usually forward and upwards moving. So too is your path away from loneliness. It may feel all-consuming in the moment, but it isn’t. It only takes a few small changes, a bit of willpower, and the ability to reach out to the world, and you will be surprised at the drastic change you can enjoy.
Join our Recoverlution Community here. Loneliness in addiction recovery is optional.
- Study suggests high-quality social interactions can protect against depressed mood - https://www.psypost.org/2022/04/study-suggests-high-quality-social-interactions-can-protect-against-depressed-mood-63047
- Research and analysis: Mental health and loneliness: the relationship across life stages - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mental-health-and-loneliness-the-relationship-across-life-stages/mental-health-and-loneliness-the-relationship-across-life-stages
- Emotional and Social Loneliness in Individuals With and Without Substance Dependence Disorder - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4295122/