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July 24, 2022

Isolation and Addiction Recovery

Addiction robs many of us of our support systems. Over time, individuals struggling with addiction may lose contact with their loved ones, friends, family members, and colleagues. As addiction progresses, individuals may push friends and family away as a form of self-protection or to avoid scrutiny and criticism. In other cases, loved ones may choose to distance themselves from an individual in active addiction as a means of protecting their own mental and physical health.

Whatever the reason, addiction often leaves individuals isolated, alone, and with few ways to find help or support for their recovery. Because of this, isolation can also make diagnosing, managing, and treating addictive behaviors more difficult. Long-term periods of loneliness can also make it more difficult for a person to seek treatment and can worsen any substance use disorders they may already be experiencing.

In this time of uncertainty, when many communities are self-isolating and practicing social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s especially important to recognize the risks that isolation poses to individuals struggling with addiction.

We've put together a list of some of the most common risks associated with isolation during addiction, as well as some steps you can take to better overcome the challenges of isolation as you recover.

Isolation can lead to increased mental health challenges, which can trigger substance use.

As humans, we know intuitively that social connections are important for our mental well-being. For this reason, many of us choose to spend our time with others even when we aren't obligated to do so, whether that's volunteering, socializing with friends or visiting with family and loved ones.

Our need for social connection becomes particularly important when we are overcoming hardship, which is why seeking out therapy, support from loved ones, and reassurance from friends is so important during difficult times. The same is true for individuals recovering from addiction, who face significant mental and physical hurdles to sustain their recovery and need social support for success. Individuals who have a strong support network, motivated peers, and access to professional treatment have a much higher chance of long-term recovery.

This makes isolation highly disruptive to the recovery process. In fact, research from Brigham Young University has found that isolation can have devastating effects on our mental health and can even increase our risk of early death. Isolation can lead to mental health risks including:

  • Increased depression and anxiety
  • Challenges concentrating or focusing
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Increased risk of dementia
  • Feelings of chronic stress or tension
  • Increased side effects of post-traumatic stress

For many individuals, these mental health challenges can worsen substance use and can even trigger a substance use disorder, when an individual continues using an addictive substance despite the harmful consequences to themselves and others. Many individuals who are grappling with trauma, depression, anxiety, or other forms of chronic stress may turn to addictive substances as a way to “feel normal,” not realizing that this can quickly spiral into a substance use disorder with lasting consequences.

Social isolation at different times of life may also have an effect on substance use. A 2016 study published in the journal Neuropathology of Drug Addictions and Substance Misuse found that social isolation during adolescence could make young men more likely to drink.

Research also suggests that social isolation can make the effects of a substance use disorder even worse. A 2016 study published in the journal Current Molecular Pharmacology found that the negative effects of opioid addiction and the negative effects of isolation could combine to cause significant and lasting harm to the brain.

Isolation is dangerous and harmful to everyone, not just people at risk for addiction. But for individuals with a substance use disorder, isolation can make the outcomes even worse.

Isolation can trigger physical health complications which can worsen substance use disorders.

While we understand that loneliness and isolation can be harmful to our mental health, we don't always associate isolation with physical health risks. Yet research shows us that long-term isolation and lack of social contact can be detrimental to many different aspects of our well-being.

Leading research studies indicate that isolation can have a negative effect on our physical health in much the same way as it does on our mental health. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that isolation increased the risk of death among both black and white men and women, as well as increasing their risk of heart disease.

The study's lead author Dr. Kassandra Alcaraz told the American Psychological Association that "the magnitude of risk presented by social isolation is very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care, and physical inactivity."  In other words, isolation’s effects on the body were similar to those posed by risks like smoking and a lack of exercise.

Among the physical health risks posed by isolation include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Heart-related complications
  • Lowered resistance to infection
  • Higher risk for heart disease

A 2015 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that individuals who identified as socially isolated actually had less powerful responses to viruses within their immune systems than those who did not identify as lonely.

For individuals struggling with substance use, an increase in physical health issues can also lead to the use of addictive substances. The misuse of alcohol and pain-killing medication like opioids is particularly common among individuals managing chronic health conditions.

Isolation can lead to an increased risk of relapse.

Relapse occurs when an individual who has previously been sober returns to using addictive substances once more. Relapse can occur for many different reasons and is not an indicator that addiction treatment or recovery has failed. Instead, individuals who relapse can work with an addiction treatment provider to understand the conditions that led to the relapse and determine a new recovery path forward.

Unfortunately, social isolation can increase an individual's risk of relapse. Relapse is often linked to a series of addictive "triggers" that act upon built-in behavior patterns within the brain. Common triggers can include:

  • People, places, or objects associated with substance use
  • Negative or challenging emotions that prompt substance use
  • Memories or past experiences of substance use
  • Intrusive thoughts or feelings "covered up" by substance use

After a long period of consuming addictive substances, neural pathways and neurotransmitter chemicals associated with the addictive substance are primed to reactivate. When the brain experiences these triggers once again, individuals may experience strong physical and mental cravings for the addictive substance which can be difficult to resist.

Triggers can be physical places, people, or things, but they can also be emotions, feelings, sensations, or memories, making them difficult to manage on your own.

In most cases, treatment professionals recommend individuals in recovery find alternate ways of coping with these triggers, including changing environments, spending time with sober friends and family, and engaging in therapy to develop new, healthier behavior patterns.

These coping mechanisms are difficult, however, when an individual remains socially isolated. Without the benefit of peer support, therapy, and behavior change, it can be difficult to resist triggers. Isolation is particularly challenging for individuals whose addictive triggers include feelings of stress, depression, and anxiety, all of which are common in isolation.

Isolation can make finding peer support more difficult.

One of the most rewarding aspects of addiction recovery is the opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals who are also pursuing a life free of substance use.

In isolation, we may not always realize that there are people—often our friends and neighbors—who are going through the same experience as we are. Whether they are struggling with depression and anxiety or trying to get sober, members of our community often share similar struggles.

As a result, one of the cornerstones of addiction recovery is the peer support model. Often this takes the form of a traditional 12-step program, in which individuals work through a series of recovery steps alongside their peers in recovery. In other cases, individuals may join group therapy sessions or find help with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings in their community.

And group support does not end with the individual, either. Family members, friends, and loved ones of an individual in recovery can join peer support groups like Al-Anon to discuss ways to help manage the recovery process.

Benefits of peer recovery include:

  • Accountability within the recovery process
  • Opportunity for mutual support
  • Safe space for discussion and conversation
  • Sense of companionship and interaction during recovery

Unfortunately, individuals who isolate themselves often miss out on these peer support benefits. Luckily, the availability of online and phone-based meetings makes it easier than ever for individuals to take advantage of peer support even if they are restricted to their home, as we’ve seen during the Covid-19 pandemic. We’ve listed some recovery resources later on in this article for individuals who are seeking peer support but can’t leave their homes to access a group meeting.

Isolation can make individuals believe they can’t recover.

As we've seen, isolation can cause a variety of challenges, including mental, physical, and behavioral risks to our health. Long-term loneliness can also cause us to disconnect from peer support networks that can help us recover and feel less isolated.

Social isolation has other dangerous side effects, too. One such side effect is the belief that we don’t deserve to recover, or that recovery simply won’t work for us in the way that it has for others. Long-term isolation and lack of social interaction often leads us to view ourselves as unloveable, unwanted, unworthy of help, and unable to change.

A 2018 study published in the journal Palgrave Communications analyzed a variety of different tactics used to combat isolation and loneliness. One of the most effective techniques, researchers found, was to change the way individuals thought about themselves. The study found that individuals who identified as lonely were more likely to show signs of "self-disgust," in which individuals became "more socially inhibited and reluctant to connect with other people."

These feelings of unworthiness often make it difficult for people who have been isolated for long periods of time to seek the help they need for mental health or addiction issues. While many different resources exist—from addiction treatment to mental health counseling to peer support groups—individuals who do not see themselves as worthy of help are less likely to seek out these resources in the first place.

Luckily, isolation does not need to derail your recovery. There are a variety of programs available for individuals who are alone but ready for recovery.

Special support during the Covid-19 pandemic

Though isolation has long been a factor in addiction and recovery, the Covid-19 pandemic has created particularly challenging conditions for individuals in active recovery or those who would like to overcome addiction.

Since one of the primary ways of managing the pandemic is to self-isolate to avoid infecting yourself and others, the risks we've laid out above are very present. In fact, a recent survey from the University of Chicago found the majority of respondents saying they felt "anxious, depressed, lonely or hopeless" during the pandemic.

As we have seen, adverse mental health challenges are one of the major risk factors of social isolation and affect people struggling with addiction particularly hard.

Luckily, the recovery community has responded forcefully to the pandemic. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has labeled addiction treatment providers as an "essential service" provider during the pandemic, allowing them to continue providing vital treatment to individuals throughout the crisis. Many treatment providers have begun using telemedicine and other strategies to reach their clients during this time.

At the same time, peer-based organizations have adapted to meet their members' needs during the Covid-19 pandemic. They are now offering online or phone-based meetings and other services. A few of those resources include:

You can find a complete list of online recovery resources from SAMHSA here.

If you're struggling with Covid-19-related social isolation, please understand that we are all in this together. Access the resources listed above to find a peer support group that can help you find social connections, even from a distance. And don't hesitate to contact an addiction treatment professional for more information and resources about continuing your recovery while social distancing.

Residential addiction treatment

For individuals who are just beginning their recovery from addiction, residential addiction treatment is typically the right choice (although everyone's recovery path is different, so make sure to explore your options.)

If you or a loved one have been isolated from others for a long period of time, residential treatment can provide a structured, step-by-step process towards a sustainable recovery. Because you're typically living and receiving treatment in the same space with the same cohort, you'll be able to rebuild social connections and benefit from the support of others in a way that you may have been missing previously.

Residential addiction treatment typically includes both individual and group therapy, as well as life skills training, relapse risk training, and other forms of therapeutic treatment. When searching for a residential treatment provider, make sure to seek out providers that are licensed and accredited by organizations such as the Joint Commission or CARF.

Most individuals who undergo residential addiction treatment will opt into some form of outpatient treatment to ensure they are continuing their recovery as they re-enter everyday life.

Outpatient addiction treatment

Though outpatient addiction treatment is a good fit for individuals who have already attended a residential treatment program, everyone's addiction needs are different, so contact an outpatient program to understand if outpatient treatment is the right fit for you.

One of the most challenging aspects of addiction recovery is moving from the comfort and stability of an addiction treatment program into the world outside, where addictive triggers are much more common. Outpatient addiction treatment helps individuals who are in active recovery with this transition back into their everyday lives.

Most outpatient treatment programs utilize a multi-tiered approach where individuals attend daily sessions while living independently or at a sober living home. This approach allows individuals to ensure they have the proper skills and experience necessary to move incrementally back into everyday life.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many outpatient treatment providers now offer telehealth services where individuals can continue their recovery at home. For more information about telehealth options at Meta, contact our team at (844) 909-2560.

Outpatient programs also provide strong levels of peer support, so individuals in recovery always have a community where they can return for discussion, education, and exploration. Knowing that you are not alone is one of the most important steps toward long-term recovery.

For individuals who were previously highly isolated, outpatient treatment provides the framework they need to re-enter the world in a controlled and protected manner while still maintaining connections to family, friends, and school or work opportunities.

If you are still unsure if outpatient treatment is the right choice for your or your loved one’s recovery, you can take this brief self-assessment to find out.

Whichever path you choose, please remember that isolation doesn’t have to mean the end of your recovery. Whether you’re socially isolating during the Covid-19 pandemic or have become isolated due to addiction, there’s no need to end your recovery journey. If you need support or guidance, you can always contact our treatment team for more information about your options. We are available for a free and confidential phone consultation at (844) 909-2560.