The Connection between Loneliness & Substance Abuse

Help for addiction

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

~Mother Teresa

From the outside, alcoholics and addicts seem to be the opposite of lonely. They always seem to be the “life of the party” and they always seem to have a bunch of good-time buddies who always want to hang around when it is time to drink or use.

But in reality, people with genetic predispositions to substance abuse/dependence may be in a progressively downward predictable spiral of destruction.  Many leave the role of being the ‘life of the party’ to return home to drink alone, not because they ‘want to’ but because they ‘have to’. Those with a growing chemical dependency can’t “not drink” or use drugs no matter how badly they may feel afterward.

As this dependence develops, there is a disconnection from friend, family and one self.

20 Reasons People Give for Seeking Substance Abuse Treatment

A Basic Human Need

In his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed the Human Hierarchy of Needs – a pyramid of the most basic requirements shared by all people. When these means are not met, the individual suffers.

Needs Required for:  BASIC SURVIVAL

Physical          Safety     To Love & Belong


Sleep and rest

Food and drink

Exercise and recreation

Environmental comfort

Emotional release

Sexual expression

Spiritual connection


Safe from harm

Emotional trust

Financial security

Feel prosperous

Vocational expression




Security and stability

Loving self

Loving others

Feeling loved

Belong in our  families

Belong in our communities

Understand others

Understood by others

Share common interests

Care for others

The first need is to meet our basic physical needs, and when one has become dependent on the substance, sleep and other basic needs are unmet. The second basic need is Safety and as the chemical dependence is developing over the months and years, relationships, employment, finances are deteriorating as the primary physical, safety and belonging needs are met by the substance as it dominates the private life of the person, leaving the person feeling incredible loneliness.  Loneliness is so physically stressful that it has the same mortality risk as smoking and twice that of obesity.

Some theorists have suggested that we are not physically built for loneliness, stemming from humanity’s beginnings. Back when humans were nothing more than tribes of hunters and gatherers, it was belonging to the tribe that increased an individual’s chances for survival.

Loneliness Affects the Brain

Loneliness can negatively impact a person’s brain to the point where they have less control over their emotions, cravings, and behaviors. Without this control, the person is vulnerable to addictive-type behaviors. It can also engage a person’s instinctive “fight-or-flight” impulse, releasing hormones that interfere with conscious decision-making and willpower.

Connections with Others Trumps Addiction

In an older study, a group of rats was placed alone in individual cages with two bottles – one bottle filled with pure water, and the other filled with water that had been laced with cocaine or heroin. Invariably, the rats chose the water with drugs, and they went back again and again until they died.

Another group of rats were placed in “group” cages with other rats and had access to toys and activities. They were also given the same two bottles of water, one drug and one pure. Less than a quarter of the “socially-active” rats habitually chose the drug water.

Causal and Constant

Loneliness and substance abuse are viciously intertwined. A person may abuse drugs or alcohol in order to alleviate the painful emotions associated with feelings of loneliness and alienation. People who are lonely often have self-esteem issues, as they cannot keep their commitments to themselves and will continue to drink or use in order to bolster their confidence, or at least to escape any feelings of unworthiness.

The cycle worsens, however, because people who are lost to an active addiction unconsciously tend to alienate people around them, as the relationship with the substance becomes the primary relationship, excluding family and friends.

Strategies for Recovery

It is no accident that most 12-step programs call themselves a “fellowship”. They believe that by sharing their common experiences in a group, each individual can draw strength from the whole.

It is this “common experience” that is often most surprising to an addict/alcoholic new in recovery because up to this point, most have felt that their experiences were unique unto them. Whatever shame, guilt, or secret craving they may have had, someone else in the group has had it, too.

And that makes it okay.

The same goes for group sessions in a rehab setting. They may not exactly call themselves a “fellowship”, but the philosophy remains the same. By sharing, a person can lessen their own mental burdens.

It is important for a person in recovery to put themselves out there and actively participate in such activities as enthusiastically as they can, even if they have to “fake it until they make it”. The most important message that they need to receive from these groups and fellowships is that they are not alone.

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