How Isolation Can Lead to Increased Substance Use

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Alcohol and substance use disorders are complex phenomena with a number of underlying causes. This is one reason why, for those in recovery, even simple stressors may trigger relapse. Research shows that old habit loops can easily reactivate under stress. Cravings may recur, which can leave newly sober people feeling like they’re back to square one.

With the current COVID-19 crisis keeping many people confined to their homes, it’s crucial to keep in mind that loneliness and social isolation are two major factors underlying alcohol and substance use disorders. These conditions add a major stress factor that can place additional pressure on newfound habits of sobriety.

Why?

Because humans are social creatures.

Boredom and social deprivation stress the brain and body’s defenses – and they also threaten sobriety because many recovery strategies leverage the power of social groups.

Humans are Hard-Wired for Social Interaction

While everyone is different, humans are by nature profoundly social creatures. Studies demonstrate the many health benefits of a strong social network, closeness and touch, and frequent in-person contact.

Conversely, deprivation of social and physical contact can have adverse effects. These effects can be physical as well as mental and emotional. Recent research suggests that loneliness and isolation led to increased inflammation, suggestive of an aggravated immune response. Indeed, addiction – which we now refer to as the disordered use of substances – was for years called a disease of isolation.

Isolation Leads to Boredom

On a practical level, keeping busy with a variety of activities and interactions is a time-tested recovery strategy. It makes sense, then, that loneliness, isolation, and boredom tend to increase the risk of a relapse. A famous study showed that isolated rats in bare cages developed maladaptive behavior much more readily than those placed in a stimulating environment with lots of social contact. During quarantine, most of us can relate. Without an enriched environment and the social contact afforded by modern technology, things would be far more difficult.

To an individual in recovery, boredom can lead to temptation. With in-person social support degraded by shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines, they may feel more lonely and isolated than ever. Turning to alcohol or drugs to alleviate boredom may be very tempting. That’s why now, more than ever, it’s important for all of us to offer our help and support to people we know are in recovery.

Social Groups Strengthen Recovery

As we all adjust to quarantine conditions, social distancing, and working from home, compound stressors present a unique challenge to everyone. Part of this is the normalization of lapses in our social structures during COVID lockdown. Faced with boredom, isolation, anxiety, and the disruption of work routines, people in the U.S. in general seem to be drinking more.

Nationwide, alcohol sales are rising: one estimate showed a jump of 243%. 

To make matters worse, many strategies for battling addiction and substance abuse – such as AA meetings, group counseling, church groups, and sober companions – leverage the benefits of a strong social network. For people in recovery – especially those early in recovery – disruption in their support network can be stressful and increase the chance of relapse.

Seeking New Sources of Support

So: what can be done?

First, for people in recovery, simply recognizing that this is a time to seek added support is important. It’s crucial to acknowledge that stress is amplified now, and that new strategies for coping might be needed.

We’re fortunate to live in an era when new ways to connect are readily available. AA offers meetings online, as does NA. Social media offers many opportunities to connect with old friends, whether to reach out for support or simply to establish connections over shared interests. However, experts suggest that for some, social media and text-based interactions can feel isolating, or simply aren’t enough. Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime calls provide a closer approximation of real-life interaction.

Seeking Old Sources of Support

Also, a good old-fashioned phone call can work wonders. People in recovery can reach out to a friend, counselor, or supportive family member. Just hearing someone’s voice can be comforting and provide a much-needed relief from stress and anxiety. Experts recommend both seeking help and providing support to others. This is one reason why the group dynamic is such a long-standing weapon in the fight against addiction. And that’s why recognizing the impact of isolation on mental health is important for everyone. Whether we’re in recovery or not, reaching out to offer support right now will help us.

While we’re talking about simple, time-tested ways to battle the effects of isolation, we should also remember to get outside as much as possible. Seeing blue sky and sunshine can be a wholesome reminder that life goes on. Meeting friends for a walk can be safe with proper precautions, and exercise generates endorphins that boost your mood and benefit your health, breaking negative emotional spirals.

Staying Connected Creates an Upward Spiral

The good news is that these new habits can jump-start a positive feedback loop, as new rewards reinforce new behaviors. As we find new ways to reach out to others, we embrace the benefits of seeking help and providing support to others. New neural pathways begin to form around the new, productive habits. Each positive experience reinforces the new habit loop. Isolation is an added challenge in addressing alcohol and substance use disorders, so new strategies will be needed to meet that challenge.

The important part is taking that first step. During isolation, that first step is to reach out and connect with someone.