Addiction can be an incredibly lonely disease. Substance use disorders, whether an opioid addiction, alcohol addiction, or a benzodiazepine addiction, can leave individuals feeling isolated, withdrawn, and emotionally distant.
As the addiction progresses, it’s not uncommon for these individuals to cause damage in their relationships, lose the support of family and friends, and spiral into a lonely existence with the addiction at the center of their universe.
Many individuals will continue to use substances of abuse to help deal with feelings of isolation, and sadly the cycle repeats itself over and over again.
How The Brain Processes Loneliness
Research has determined that the brain processes loneliness in the same manner it processes food cravings.
The brain craves social interactions, and when individuals are deprived of social encounters, the brain activates specific neurons responsible for the production of serotonin and dopamine.
Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters that are responsible for feelings of euphoria and are increased in the presence of addictive behaviors and rewards, whether it is food or illicit drugs. They also play a significant role in an individual’s emotional well-being.
When an individual is lonely, dopaminergic neurons in the dorsal raphe nucleus are activated as a means to trigger the need for social interaction.
Additionally, chronically lonely brains can become more vigilant towards threats, sending the individual into panic mode in response to specific triggers that would typically not lead to a sense of fear and worry.
As a result, many individuals may continue to use drugs as a way to lessen these threats and feelings of anxiety in addition to filling the loneliness void.
Loneliness and Physical Health
Loneliness, like addiction, can take a toll on an individual’s physical health resulting in high blood pressure, autoimmune disorders, and heart disease.
Addiction can also have drastic effects on physical health, adding to the impact of the loneliness on the body.
Seeking Help for Addiction to Combat Loneliness
One of the first steps in addiction treatment is to undergo detoxification, which rids the body of the abused substance, whether it is opioids or alcohol.
Detoxification can take several days to a couple of weeks and often requires medications to wean the individual to prevent physical withdrawal symptoms.
During this stage, the individual’s brain pathways that are triggered by loneliness are often in disarray since the individual’s body is depleted of the abused substance.
As a result, many individuals will have intense feelings of loneliness during the detoxification process, but this is only temporary.
After detoxification, the individual will undergo group and individual therapy sessions where the individual will be able to interact with others in a healthy environment and simultaneously learn positive coping techniques that can help fill the empty void that was once associated with loneliness.
Feelings of loneliness do not automatically dissipate once an individual enters into treatment but over time and with hard work, the individual will learn techniques and strategies to start to feel whole again.
“We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.”
– Dalai Lama XIV
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