The Link Between Loneliness and Substance Abuse: 5 Things You Need to Know

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A 2020 study conducted by health insurer Cigna revealed a curious truth about Americans and loneliness: more than 3 out of 5 consider themselves lonely. Though for some, loneliness is a fleeting feeling that they have every once in a while, for others it can be more serious. In the field of psychology, loneliness is defined as the troubling experience of having fewer social relationships—or relationships of less depth—than one desires. Painful bouts of loneliness can ensue when a person has undergone rejection, moved to a new place, or recently broken up with a romantic partner. Loneliness can also set in when one has lost parents, friends, or other people who form their main support group to death.

It is normal to feel lonely sometimes when one’s need to belong is not met. But intense loneliness can also be symptomatic of a deeper problem—and it can result in unhealthy behaviors, like drug or alcohol abuse. To understand a complex illness like addiction—and to prevent it from happening to loved ones—let’s examine the link between substance abuse and loneliness. Here are five things that you should know.

Loneliness is a Risk Factor for Several Health Conditions—Including Substance Use Disorder

Loneliness can deal damage to the human body and mind in very real ways. Some examples of the health effects of severe loneliness include weaker immune systems, poor sleep, and arthritis. Loneliness can also lead to unhealthy consumption patterns of food and drink, which in turn may result in Type 2 diabetes. And lastly, it may serve as a trigger for increased consumption of addictive substances, like nicotine, alcohol, and hard drugs.

Deep feelings of sadness, anxiety, exclusion, or invalidation can take a substantial toll on a person’s health. They also increase the risk of the person engaging in coping mechanisms that are ultimately very harmful to them. Those are proof that you should take loneliness seriously, and that you should find a substance abuse helpline if it’s led to something like addiction.

Loneliness Can Feed Co-Morbid Disorders

Severe loneliness is difficult enough to bear on its own. But when paired with co-morbidities, or multiple health conditions occurring simultaneously within one person, it is cause for alarm.

For example, someone may be bearing the weight of loneliness along with an addiction and a mental health disorder, like depression or anxiety. Loneliness can exacerbate either condition if they are not treated as soon as possible.

Loneliness Can Incite Substance Abuse—and Vice Versa

Loneliness and substance abuse have the potential to work together in a vicious cycle. Because they are feeling lonely, misunderstood, or unloved, a person may turn to drugs or alcohol. This is their means to distract themselves or become numb to the burden of loneliness.

However, their drug or alcohol abuse may isolate them even further from the people who are still in their lives. The addiction itself—as well as the financial, legal, and personal troubles that come with it—may sow resentment, fear, and distrust in their relationships. Thus, the band-aid solution of substance abuse that the person sought, all in order to escape loneliness, will have backfired. It is possible that their drug or alcohol abuse may make them even lonelier than ever.

Those Suffering from Addiction and Loneliness May Not Know There’s a Way Out

Despite any warnings they get about drug or alcohol abuse, a person may turn to these because they don’t see an end to their loneliness. After all they’ve been through, they may not believe that there’s a way out of their suffering. Perhaps they feel like drugs or alcohol are their only means to improve their moods and give them the energy to get through their days.

If someone has come to this point, they may be at risk of becoming even more unwell due to their substance abuse. Not only will they become more susceptible to health conditions like kidney and liver problems or brain damage. They may also be increasingly vulnerable to death by suicide. Thus, it becomes all the more necessary to help them envision a future where they are healthy and emotionally fulfilled. Drugs, alcohol, and other dangers to their life must no longer be part of the picture.

We Must Cope with Loneliness in Healthy Ways

The last thing to remember is that there are healthy ways to cope with loneliness that don’t involve drugs or alcohol. If you and your loved ones can keep that in perspective, you’ll be a greater distance away from the threat of addiction.

Here are some of the healthiest ways to respond to severe loneliness:

  • Remind whoever needs to hear it that they are not completely alone in the world. Affirm their need to belong and be loved for who they are. At the same time, make it clear that drugs and alcohol shouldn’t play a part in fulfilling these needs.
  • See what needs to be done to confront the underlying problem. The substance abuse may be driven by loneliness caused by separation, death, or failed attempts to integrate with a new social group. The right solution may be to find therapy or to get in touch with a support group—but for sure, it isn’t continued substance abuse.
  • Find ways to boost each other’s physical health, confidence, and mental fortitude, as all of these can help combat loneliness in the long term. With sound minds and bodies, you and your loved ones will be better equipped to conquer feelings of loneliness, despair, and self-doubt. You’ll be readier to confront challenges like fitting in, establishing new relationships, and repairing existing ones—without being in the shadow of drugs or alcohol.

The deep loneliness that either you or someone you know may be feeling now will not last forever. There are people who care deeply for you, and there are resources and support systems to help you meet your physical, mental, and emotional needs. Know above all that you are not alone and that you deserve to live a happy, healthy life with people that you love. Here’s to hoping that you will win your battles against addiction, loneliness, and everything else that’s in the way of your self-fulfillment!


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