In light of recent social distancing measures, I’ve been thinking about the impact of isolation on persons with addiction.
Isolation and addiction go hand-in-hand. Isolation causes addiction, and addiction causes isolation. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to dive into the topic in further detail.
As a sociologist and addiction counselor, this is a topic I have thought about quite a bit over the years.
So what is the impact of isolation on addiction?
Isolation increases the risk of addiction among individuals using a substance or behavior to cope with the loneliness, boredom, or loss of purpose due to isolation.
It is important to note that isolation and loneliness are not synonymous. You can be living in an isolated situation, yet feel connected to others. You can also be living in a highly social situation, yet feel alone.
This article focuses on persons experiencing loneliness due to isolation, feeling a sense of social disconnection or displacement.
Isolation Causes Addiction
Addiction is caused by various factors: biological, psychological, social, and spiritual. Mainstream medical discussions of addiction tend to focus on the biological realm and the addictive nature of chemical properties within a substance.
Although certain substances can be risky due to their chemical makeup, this perspective does not explain addiction. Many people consume substances without developing an addiction.
Besides, it doesn’t explain addictive behaviors like gambling and gaming, since behavioral addictions develop without necessarily consuming a chemical compound.
This is why the social realm is so important.
Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, recognizes this in the statement:
“We consider addiction a disease of isolation…”
Bruce Alexander is a major advocate for this perspective, with his famous Rat Park Study.
Researchers typically conducted rat studies on addiction with a single rat in a metal cage. If you leave the rat with drug-infused water and regular water, the rat will continue taking the drug until it overdoses.
The rat park study did the same experiment but took the rat out of isolation, putting it into rat park, a large rat amusement park with the company of several other rats.
Rather than overdosing on the drug-infused water, the rats in rat park moderated their consumption, balancing it with the regular water.
Although there have been some unsuccessful attempts to replicate the study, there have been some successful attempts as well.
A more recent study reported by the National Institue on Drug Abuse reinforces the rat park findings:
“The new study, led by NIDA’s Dr. Marco Venniro, required rats to choose between social interaction with another rat or access to a drug (heroin or methamphetamine). The animals consistently chose social interaction when given the choice, and this was true when they were first given access to the drug or when they were experienced drug takers.”
The fact that the rats chose interaction over addictive substances reinforces the power of social connection and the risk of addiction when it is not present.
Addiction to Social Media ‘Likes’
Since rats choose interaction over addiction, what if the addiction is the social interaction.
As humans, our social realm is extremely complex, especially in the midst of social media technology. This form of social interaction, itself, can be an addiction.
How social is social media? If it is social, then how is it encouraging addiction? Shouldn’t it be helping reduce isolation?
In my article, Is Social Media Making Us Less Social? I concluded:
“Social Media is making us less social when used to compare oneself to others, contributing to higher levels of loneliness and lower levels of well-being among frequent users. It can be social when used to meaningfully connect with others.”
Using social media in a way that connects us with others can make us less isolated and more socially engaged, especially in times we are unable to meet in person.
Using social media in this way to reduce isolation can, therefore, reduce the risk of addiction. When used to compare ourselves to others, it facilitates further isolation, leading to the risk of compulsive consumption and ‘like’ seeking.
Why Social Connection is Important
Social isolation is as dangerous as smoking.
In a TED Talk on the study, Robert Waldinger emphasizes the dangers of social isolation, stating:
Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.
Physical health issues are intertwined with social and mental health issues. Like addiction, we need to consider the full spectrum of factors contributing to health and wellness.
Luckily, social determinates of health are gaining traction in the scientific literature. Recent research looked at the impact of loneliness as a risk factor for mortality and found:
Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.
The researchers also found loneliness is comparable to other health indicators, including substance abuse, irresponsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and access to health care.
Although studies are now mounting regarding the risk of social isolation, it is a relatively neglected issue. The researchers note:
The current status of research on the risks of loneliness and social isolation is similar to that of research on obesity 3 decades ago.
If we want to understand human thriving, the social component is essential.
According to an 80 year long Harvard study that followed a group of individuals since their college years, the quality of our close social relations is the best predictor of health and happiness:
…people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.
Modern conveniences allow us to live more independently than ever. We can connect with family and friends during times where distance and isolation would normally reduce interaction.
With the increased convenience, we also need to also consider the potential costs when technology is used in ways that further contribute to isolation. This does not necessarily mean using less technology. It means using technology in smart and innovative ways to maintain connections.
Dealing with Isolation to Reduce the Risk
During this unique time of self-isolation and social distancing, it is necessary, more than ever, to consider the quality of our close interpersonal relations and use technology in ways that bring us together.
Persons suffering from addiction or those in recovery are at increased risk during this time. Addiction programming and in-person supports have largely shut down. Residential treatment programs are not operating and withdrawal services are limited.
As the serenity prayer states, we need the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and the courage to change the things we can.
Although we cannot change the current situation, we can recognize the things we do have control over and take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of loneliness due to isolation.
Consider reaching out to supportive family or friends, catching up like-minded people you haven’t talked to in a while, using the phone, email, or scheduling online video chats.
If you find yourself feeling like a disengaged social media spectator, consider engaging in ways that fit your personal style. This could include making meaningful comments, sending private messages, or creating your own content. Personally, I prefer private messages and engaging with people through my website platform.
Lastly, if you’re in isolation with other family members or roommates, it is easy to feel disengaged from one another while in the same household. If you find yourself in the same rut of social media scrolling and Netflix binges, consider pulling out some classic board games, eating together, or exercising.