The Impact of Isolation on Addiction

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:

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.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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  1. insanitybytes22

    I was quite concerned about addiction and isolation when our quarantine began. Also, really frustrated because a lot of newly sober people doing everything right have now lost their jobs, lost access to their meetings, and are struggling with housing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised, all my doom and gloom has not come to pass. There are some trials for sure, but locally at least, I’ve seen this quarantine create some community, relieve some loneliness. Suddenly everyone has something in common and they need to band together to get through it.

    • Steve Rose

      Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m glad to hear the doom and gloom as not come. I agree that it seems like people are really stepping up, so far. I’m optimistic this won’t end in some doomsday scenario. Everyone is in this together and hopefully the common purpose continues to bind us. We are all together in our isolation.

  2. Richard

    Great article Steve! I believe it is challenging times as this that we are forced into greater introspection and values clarification. If we are not tested in times of crisis, (our addictions, isolation and fears, etc.) how will we know what we are capable of? After 25 years of working in the field of crisis intervention and suicide prevention work, I have found comfort in the Chinese language framing of the word “crisis”. It Is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other opportunity. This may sound simplistic, however when it is reduced to linguistic choices we make, a crisis can present opportunities to discover new strengths, truths and build psychological hardiness. We need to be tested to understand our strengths and weaknesses. The current pandemic crisis is dynamic in revealing the individual work to be done to bring healing and balance back into our lives. And yes… isolation and loneliness can be challenging, painful and destructive to the addict or anyone in these challenging times. I have always preferred the affirming word “aloneness” defined as presence, fullness, aliveness, joy of being, of which I suggest you write about as a follow-up to this article. Aloneness has many creative components that can be beneficial in “re-framing the loneliness crisis” we all may be experiencing into opportunities for personal growth and empowerment.
    Thanks for you insightful and healing articles.

    • Steve Rose

      Thank you for this insightful comment! I completely agree that this can also be a time of innovation and growth, on both the personal and societal level.


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