Identifying and adequately addressing the factors that contribute to substance abuse and addiction is an essential step we can take to improve the chances of success for those in treatment and recovery. One factor many overlook when examining the causes of addiction is the role of social isolation in the development and advancement of alcohol and drug addiction. Human beings are, by nature, social creatures. Our social health is one of the eight dimensions of wellness outlined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Social interaction helps provide people with comfort, encourage healthier lifestyle choices, cope with difficult life challenges, or offer different perspectives on general life events.
As beneficial as socialization can be, social isolation can have the opposite effect. The adverse effects of social isolation, especially long-term, can significantly impact physical, emotional, and cognitive health. For someone struggling with addiction, ongoing social isolation can lead to increased drug and alcohol abuse or even trigger a relapse in someone who is in recovery.
How does spending too much time alone impact mental health and intensify a person’s substance abuse?
How Does Isolation Fuel Drug and Alcohol Addiction?
There is a difference between social isolation and merely feeling lonely. Someone is considered socially isolated if they live alone, don’t participate in any work or community organizations, and have relatively little or infrequent contact with family and friends. On the other hand, loneliness is when an individual who is sad or anxious feels disconnected to others. Some who experience social isolation may not feel lonely, whereas others surrounded by members of their social circle may still feel completely isolated.
Robust systems of social support are closely linked to better treatment adherence and recovery outcomes. Likewise, social isolation, while struggling with addiction, makes the condition worse in several different ways. Below are just three of the main issues that contribute to escalating alcohol and drug use during a period of isolation.
Excess Idle Time
Many people turn to alcohol and drugs due to being bored and having excessive idle time on their hands. The reasons for isolation could be many. For some, it could be due to divorce or another change in their living situation. For others, it could be due to job loss or moving to a different town away from their social circles. As ongoing alcohol and drug abuse progress into addiction, boredom often becomes even more of a factor because the substance is changing the brain. These changes result in the individual receiving more satisfaction or gratification from substance use than from ordinary activities such as interacting with family and friends. The individual abusing alcohol and drugs becomes more and more likely to choose substances as the first defense against boredom.
Typically, people have a routine in place that keeps them from abusing substances at all hours of the day. However, when work, school, and other social activities are halted, people already struggling with addiction have to face more cravings and triggering events with fewer options to combat them.
Anxiety and Depression
Exacerbating mental health conditions are also related to isolation. Anxiety and depression are often shown to have a cyclical relationship for those struggling with social isolation. Being isolated increases the symptoms of both conditions (addiction and mental health), and both conditions make it more likely for someone to distance themselves from friends and family.
These and other mental health conditions are often part of the foundation for addiction development, as people try to avoid the adverse symptoms by numbing them with drugs or alcohol. When someone is experiencing social isolation, they may start to feel like continuously self-medicating, as it seems to be the only way to stop depression anxiety symptoms from overwhelming them. However, in most cases, doing so only makes this income source.
Lack of Accountability
Social support is a crucial element to successful recovery because it provides external accountability for the individual. When someone is going to visit their family or have a support group meeting later that week, they can often use those future interactions as a way to talk themselves out of using and possibly relapsing. When someone is alone and isolated for an extended period, that accountability can quickly disappear. Because it often feels as though no one is around to notice if relapse occurs, it seems easier to get away with a “small slip” that can lead to total relapse.
Social Isolation and Addiction Treatment
Increased isolation from others makes it harder to seek treatment at an addiction treatment like The Hills in Los Angeles, California. Deciding to enter treatment for alcohol or drug addiction involves having difficult conversations that show the addicted individual they need help. Suppose they’re not getting that kind of support due to isolation from their social circles, family, or community environment. In that case, they must find other ways to become motivated to seek treatment.
Many struggling with addiction are often hesitant to visit their primary care or mental health provider face to face. For these individuals, telehealth and telecounseling are great alternative options. For some struggling with addiction, this may even make the process of getting help at a residential treatment facility such as The Hills easier. Talking to a mental health professional or primary care provider over the phone or through video conferencing may be significantly less stressful than the traditional means of walking into a clinic. Also, there are fewer options to “back out” along the way. Once the chat session has begun, it can often be much harder to close the lines of communication. Telehealth can help provide some of the support needed to maintain recovery while also helping those struggling with addiction to make investments in their coping skills while they are alone.
Maintaining Recovery from Addiction During Time of Isolation
For individuals who have completed treatment and have already begun their recovery, it is essential they use caution not to lose their hard-earned progress should they experience social isolation. Several different tactics can be used to help ensure both mental health and physical health are taken care of.
Talk to Others
While it may sound simple, the best way to combat isolation is to avoid it. During challenging times where isolation is possible, it is essential to be intentional about maintaining relationships with family and friends. Scheduling even one weekly call with a friend, family member, or recovery sponsor is an excellent way to maintain a routine and to keep accountability in your life. These conversations don’t need to be long, but they are essential to the recovery process.
Don’t Feel Guilty Asking for Help
The idea of asking others for support or help can be daunting at any time. However, it may become even more complicated when someone struggling with addiction lacks the social or physical cues to realize when something might be wrong. Consequently, they may feel guilt or anxiety when they need to talk to somebody. Unfortunately, these emotions tend to make cravings worse and, therefore, often result in self-medicating instead of reaching out for the help they need.
It is also essential to remember that cravings are a natural part of the recovery process, and they are likely to be heightened during times of stress and isolation. The most important thing to remember is to use the coping skills taught during treatment to help handle triggers and cravings in a healthy way.
The coping strategies taught during treatment may not work as well during a period of isolation. Although the time during treatment was undoubtedly “different,” it was also a normalcy period where the addict had individuals to turn to and likely social support circle to help during stressful times. If they are experiencing isolation, these social supports and triggering circumstances are now likely different. For example, a coping strategy taught at treatment might be to get coffee with a sponsor regularly once per week. If an addicted individual is isolated from their sponsor, they will need to find another healthy outlet to replace that activity. It can feel uncomfortable to learn, try, and continue to apply new strategies when one feels at risk of relapse; however, staying flexible and adapting to current circumstances is a critical part of maintaining recovery.
Many circumstances can upend the lives of those struggling with alcohol and drug addiction or those who are now living in recovery. Self-imposed isolation has many adverse mental health effects. If a person who abuses alcohol or drugs has been in recovery for a period of time, new or recurring social isolation can be a powerful trigger that drives them back into substance abuse for all of the reasons outlined above and more. Unfortunately, social isolation and relapse often go hand in hand as the strong support structure so often absent in instances of isolation is vital to continued success in addiction recovery. For those who are currently struggling with addiction, members of their social support circles are often what spurs them to realize they need treatment or cause them to finally enter a rehab program like The Hills in Los Angeles In times of isolation, when these social supports or even family supports are not in place, individuals struggling with substance addiction may lack the perspective necessary to realize that they have a problem and need help.
At our Southern California luxury treatment center, we understand it can be challenging to talk with somebody about addiction. Often, feelings of fear and anxiety become prominent when one is exposing vulnerabilities. Also, fear of failure or relapse can cause those struggling with addiction to hide from the knowledge they need treatment. At The Hills, we utilize evidence-based, individualized treatment plans, including individual and group therapy designed to help reopen communication lines and reduce feelings of isolation. We also focus on repairing relationships through family therapy so that you or your loved one can rebuild the support system they need to prevent future relapse. If you are loved, one need help with drug or alcohol addiction, we are here. Contact us at The Hills today to speak to one of our admissions counselors.