Are you finding yourself a little more withdrawn than usual? Not wanting to hang out with friends or coming up with excuses when asked?
You might be experiencing chronic loneliness. And without proper treatment, you could get in an unhealthy pattern of substance abuse according to new research.
Whether you consider yourself an extrovert or an introvert, everybody feels lonely sometimes. For instance, after surviving breast cancer, women often experience something called survivor loneliness in which they felt their family and friends did not understand how they changed throughout their ordeal.
Even when surrounded by loved ones, these women reported feeling isolated and in a reality that others did not share. And that’s a scary feeling!
However, feeling lonely isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s when that feeling becomes chronic that you find yourself in trouble and looking to drugs and alcohol to cope with those feelings.
In this article, I’ll discuss the definition of loneliness, what the current research says about this feeling, the factors that may underlie it, and how it can affect addiction.
What’s The Difference Between Being Alone and Loneliness?
Being lonely and being alone are not the same thing. You can live by yourself and not feel lonely. On the other hand, you can find yourself surrounded by friends and family and feel like you’re on an island.
Loneliness is a subjective and individual experience of emotional suffering. According to Psychology Today, it often includes a “deeply conflicted sense of fear” around ones’ friends and family being absent.
At its heart, loneliness is an unpleasant emotion related to social pain – which, in turn, is an internal motivator to drive social creatures to seek social connections.
Alone, on the other hand, is characterized by “feelings of trust, security, and relative completeness”. That is to mean, that being alone is not necessarily something that is uncomfortable, painful, or in any way unpleasant but rather an experience in which one can feel like an entirely happy and full person.
What’s The Data Say About Loneliness?
Recently, the American Osteopathic Association and found that 72% of adults reported feelings of loneliness. Even more surprisingly, 31% of those surveyed experienced loneliness at least once a week.
But surely it’s just one study, right? Wrong.
In a large survey done by Cigna, more than three out of five Americans struggle with feeling like they are lacking in companionship, poorly understood, or are being explicitly or implicitly dismissed. So what did Cigna’s research actually find?
- 2 in 5 Americans find a lack of meaning in their relationships or feel lonely.
- Even more, loneliness has been found to more deadly than obesity and that chronic loneliness has about the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
- 1 in 2 Americans do not have any regular, if any, meaningful social interaction in their day-to-day life.
- Loneliness, or lack of social connectivity, has been linked to increased depression, a lack of hope, and substance abuse disorders.
- Adults between 18 and 22 are reported to be struggling with loneliness the most when compared to other generations.
- Because this generation grew up with all of the interconnectedness that social media provides, the loneliness in this generation is sometimes dismissed. It is easy to miss when this generation feels lonely and because of that this population is often underserved.
Things You Can Do to Stop Feeling Lonely
I know that sometimes it can be really hard to change some behaviors and there are things that research shows can help you stop feeling as lonely.
- In-Person Interactions: While it can be really tempting to guide our interactions with others through the interface of a phone, research indicates that face-to-face interaction is a key part in not feeling lonely. Now don’t get me wrong, I use my phone as much as the next guy, but I also have to be mindful that I’m not having all of my interactions through it. Maybe take some time to reach out to a friends or family member and suggest just spending some quality non-screen time together.
- Catch some Z’s: I know that you’re probably heard this repeatedly throughout your life, but sleeping is a really critical thing to do for your health. I know that you’ve probably heard about those people who can sleep for 4 hours and be fine, but research continues to show just how critical getting enough sleep is. If you want some more information on sleep hygiene, please refer to the CDC tips for better sleep.
- Family Time: You probably already guessed this one but making more time to see family is a big indicator of reduced feelings of loneliness, stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Exercise: Physical activity has been shown to improve sleep quality and duration. And you don’t have to go the gym for hours on end to receive the benefits! Even doing something for as little as 10 minutes can help you reduce stress and relieve anxiety.
How Loneliness is linked to Addiction
Everyone experiences occasional feelings of anxiety, loneliness, unhappiness, or stress, but when those feelings become chronic you can sometimes turn to external things to distract you or lessen the burden.
Oftentimes, those struggling with chronic loneliness will use drugs as a substitute for healthy interpersonal relationships and, as such, are at a higher risk of developing an addiction. What kinds of things link loneliness and addiction? Here are a few:
- People who struggle with loneliness can often lack a reinforcement for their sense of value. This can lead people to develop low-self-esteem and anxiety issues which can be “alleviated” momentarily by drugs.
- Loneliness reduces the efficacy of anti-depressants. This can cause people to lost hope in medication, continue to self-medicate, or cause enough financial stress in finding the right antidepressants that they just stop taking them altogether and turn to quick fixes like drugs.
- People who struggle with chronic loneliness may not have access to, or partake in, physical touch. Physical touch, such as hugs, produce a hormone called Oxytocin which calms your fear center and makes you feel connected to others.
- Chronic loneliness is uncomfortable and damaging to your body. People often take drugs to make them feel different than their baseline and this can lead to addiction. This style of use can in turn cause you to further isolate as more and more of your time becomes consumed with acquiring and recovering from drug use.
Frequently in my profession, and with permission from the client, I communicate with their family and give them updates about their loved ones’ current state and the issues that they’re currently struggling with.
And you know what? Almost without fail, I will hear the family deny the experiences of their loved one.
They’ll tell me things like “He can’t be lonely because we have a large family and he is always around his siblings”, “She’s not lonely, she just wants attention”, and “He can’t be lonely, he’s an extrovert and he’s always talking to people and has so many friends!”
The truth is that loneliness is a personal and subjective experience which afflicts a lot of people and has the potential to affect your life in a myriad of ways. If you’re feeling lonely, you deserve to feel valued, wanted, and appreciated. It can be a bumpy road to getting back to feeling good again and you may have to struggle with some discomfort if need to reprioritize some things in your life. But you deserve it.
What things can you start to do today to help safeguard you against loneliness?
Jonathan Mendoza is a Therapist for Stonegate Center. With a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Texas Wesleyan University, he has an interest in adolescent and adult substance abuse disorders and comorbidities. He hopes to use his training as both an MFT-A and an LPC-I to integrate and enhance the therapeutic effect of personal relationships for those in recovery. He is currently pursuing further training to become an AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist.