Loneliness and Addiction: Is There a Link?
What Is Loneliness?
Humans have an innate need to feel like they belong. Loneliness, then, is an emotional state typically defined by painful feelings associated with a sense of isolation and/or a lack of social contact or belonging.1
Loneliness and social isolation, however, are two different things. The latter is simply a lack of human contact and interaction. Meanwhile, loneliness comprises feelings of pain or distress that are often associated with being isolated or alone. The point is that some people can be socially isolated and not feel lonely. Similarly, others can be surrounded by people and still feel utterly alone.2
Based on these definitions, a significant percentage of people in the U.S. are lonely. According to a recent paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, roughly 11 to 22% of adults are lonely, with those figures increasing to 35% for those aged 45 and older.2
So what does loneliness have to do with addiction? Not only is loneliness a significant stressor that’s associated with social, psychological, and physical health outcomes, but also it’s linked to depression and anxiety as well as substance misuse. In fact, according to the aforementioned paper, loneliness is an important risk factor for substance use.3
The Impact of Loneliness
A host of physical and mental health issues are related to loneliness as described below. And the impact loneliness can have on an individual is substantial. In fact, some scientists surmise that the risk of social disconnectedness on your health and wellbeing is comparable to other risk factors such as obesity, smoking, air pollution, and physical inactivity.4
Loneliness can increase the risk for the following physical health issues:1,4,5
- Heart disease and high blood pressure.
- Death among people with heart failure.
- Cerebrovascular, cardiovascular, and other chronic illnesses.
- Weakened immune function.
Mental health issues associated with loneliness can include:
- Suicidal ideations.
- Generalized anxiety disorder.
- Cognitive decline, memory problems, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
The Link Between Loneliness and Addiction
Many factors contribute to substance misuse, substance use disorders (SUDs), and relapse. Among them, genetic and environmental factors have been identified as vulnerability factors to substance use and addiction. What isn’t yet widely understood is the role loneliness plays in substance use. More research is needed to fully understand the relationship between loneliness and substance use; however, current evidence supports a correlation.6
Existing research shows that among those who use substances, feelings of loneliness are associated with both marijuana and alcohol use. Researchers theorize that substances can reduce feelings of loneliness by providing a brief reprieve from the mental and emotional distress that loneliness brings.6
When it comes to relapse, again, many factors can contribute to it. However, researchers have identified that loneliness can play a role for many people. More specifically, relationship conflicts and negative moods (e.g., loneliness, sadness, hopelessness, etc.) can be significant factors in whether someone relapses.7
What’s more, loneliness and substance misuse can mutually influence one another. For example, loneliness and other mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression can lead to substance misuse and the development of addiction. Equally, addiction can contribute to feelings of loneliness. Research has found that people who use alcohol and/or marijuana and reported feelings of loneliness within the past two weeks also reported significantly higher substance use than those who didn’t report feelings of loneliness.6
Loneliness and Alcoholism
Alcohol misuse in the United States is not uncommon. In fact, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 10.6% of those aged 12 and older (29.5 million people) had an alcohol use disorder in the past year.8
Research conducted across many populations has linked both loneliness and social isolation to the development and maintenance of problematic alcohol use. Additionally, recent research has further shed light on the role loneliness plays in alcohol use. In a nationwide survey conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers found that loneliness was correlated with an increased risk of alcohol misuse and that nondrinkers scored much lower loneliness scores than those who experienced alcohol dependence and high-risk drinkers.9
How to Cope with Loneliness
Relationships and social connections are biological needs, as they play a vital role in our quality of life and emotional well-being.3 If you or someone you love are struggling with feelings of loneliness or social disconnection, there are several things that you can do to reduce feelings of loneliness and increase your level of social connectedness.
While there isn’t a perfect formula for developing social connectedness and relationships with others, below are strategies you can try:10
- Establish and reinforce interpersonal relationships. Join a local church, sport, or community group and/or make time for already established relationships on a regular basis.
- Strengthen the relationships in your life. Find creative ways to be communicative and responsive to others. Communicate negative emotions directly with others when they occur and spend time with people doing engaging and fun activities.
- Reach out when you are experiencing challenges. Take inventory of those in your life and ask for help and support when you need it. Also, offer help to others when they are struggling.
- Make time for the relationships in your life. Schedules can get busy, so it’s important to set time aside to connect. It can help to schedule time for connecting activities on a regular basis such as eating or exercising.
- Keep yourself healthy and well. Address underlying mental and physical health issues you may be experiencing.
If you are experiencing significant feelings of loneliness or isolation, talk to a healthcare and/or mental health professional. Support is available to help you reduce feelings of loneliness and improve your overall quality of life.