A Social Effect of Alcoholism: Isolation

It’s important to recognize the social effect of alcoholism—or how being isolated affects alcohol misuse—as that factor may impact your road to recovery as you navigate the 12 Steps of AA. Your social connections may be a strong influence for developing alcohol use disorder (AUD), and on the other end of the spectrum, your ability to overcome AUD. Even if you are not alone, you may still feel lonely. Two in five Americans say they sometimes or always feel like their social connections are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely. But this problem doesn’t exist solely on a personal level—exploring the problem from a scientific perspective shows that structural differences in American society are responsible for our greater isolation. Because the average household size in this country has decreased through the years, more people now live alone, contributing to greater isolation.

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Isolation in Recovery: a Dangerous Social Effect of Alcoholism

Studies confirm that certain brain regions are connected to pain induced by social isolation, alcohol misuse, and physical pain. Being isolated socially can cause unpleasant feelings about your ability to connect with others. If you continue to be isolated or feel isolated, you may experience greater levels of pain, which can make you more likely to misuse alcohol, since this is a common coping mechanism to relieve pain for people who struggle with alcohol misuse.

One recent study found that people meeting several criteria for social and emotional loneliness were statistically significantly more likely to have a substance use disorder than others. Likewise, feeling lonely directly relates to negative physical and mental health outcomes, depression, and alcohol misuse.

Who is Most at Risk?

The prevalence of isolation and alcohol misuse varies with sex, racial or ethnic background, and gender identity. Even the process of going through a major life development—such as reaching old age—can trigger alcohol misuse and isolation. In one survey, 63 percent of people age 45 and older who had been diagnosed with drug or alcohol misuse reported feeling lonely. Older people in alcohol misuse day treatment programs even said that the feeling of loneliness is what they noticed right before their first drink on a normal day of drinking.

People living with HIV are at greater risk of loneliness concurrent with alcohol misuse. Furthermore, people older than age 50 who also have HIV reported much greater loneliness compared to younger people with HIV. Being older with HIV significantly limits your access to social networks, and so with less socializing comes the greater risk of alcohol misuse.

Even when you manage to connect through social interactions, your satisfaction with those connections is very important and critical for your health. The more you believe you are alone, the more likely you are to find social interaction to be difficult. In turn, solitude—which may feel very safe—can become a risk factor for alcohol misuse.

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Strategies to Reduce Isolation

Friendships combat isolation and may increase your rate of recovery from an illness. Along with talking with supportive family members, friends, your doctor or therapist, here are some other strategies to reduce isolation:

  • Attend AA Meetings
    Attending 12-step peer-support programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) helps millions of people. You can get support from other members, seek a sponsor, and use the meetings to expand your social network. Step 9 of AA calls for participants to make amends for past wrongs they committed against other people. Making amends may have the added benefit of allowing you to rebuild past relationships and further strengthen your social support network. The 12 steps of AA are designed to help you on your road to recovery.
  • Renew Friendships
    Reaching out to just one person opens the door to meeting neighbors and peers or making other new healthy social connections. It’s important to understand the value of friendship because when you struggle with alcohol misuse, medical care or treatment may not be enough to combat the social effect of AUD. Your feeling of connection to others will do much more to help you avoid this loneliness.
  • It’s important to understand the value of friendship because when you struggle with alcohol misuse, medical care or treatment may not be enough to combat the social effect of AUD.

  • Join or Start a Club
    Think of your favorite activities and ways you can experience them with other people. If you love reading, you may find a book club at your community library. Whether you love hiking, biking, or roller-blading, you can seek out others who share your passion and join them for outings. Arranging to meet people for an activity can also build a sense of community. Starting something new may feel intimidating, but if you think of it as a prescription to improve your social health and well-being, you may be more likely to stick to it.
  • Learn (or Practice) a New Skill
    There are low-cost (or even free!) classes and casual groups for a variety of hobbies and interests at many community centers, libraries, and community colleges. Consider the following areas that might spark your interest and help you combat isolation:

    Art—Creative endeavors like painting, photography, jewelry-making, quilting, knitting, and woodworking can help fill your time, focus your energy, and connect you with others.
    Music—Whether you take ukulele lessons, join a choir or drum circle, or host backyard music nights, you can find people who share your passion.
    Cooking—Learn the basics or master a cuisine you love and meet other foodies
    Gardening—Learn how to plant and maintain flowers or vegetables or master the elements of landscape design while cultivating social connections.
    Writing—Whether writing for yourself or others, classes and local writing groups can keep you motivated and engaged.
    Foreign Language—A class or conversation club can help you improve your language skills and expand your social network.

  • There are low-cost (or even free!) classes and casual groups for a variety of hobbies and interests at many community centers, libraries, and community colleges.

  • Be Physically Active
    You don’t have to join a gym to include regular exercise in your life, but many gyms do foster healthy and supportive communities, and some offer free membership for volunteers who help with cleaning and other chores. Low-cost exercise classes are also often available at community centers.
  • Community Service
    Many people find it very rewarding and meaningful to spend time serving others. You can do this and connect with other people by volunteering at a local food bank, donation center, animal shelter, or library. You may help to organize a public clean-up day in your community or help staff a fund-raising event. Using your talents and time to help others can become a regular part of your routine and extend your social network.
  • Use Social Media Wisely
    One three-week study of college students found that students who limited themselves to 30 minutes of social media use each day reported feeling less lonely and depressed than students who did not restrict their time on social media. That’s because it’s not social media in and of itself that causes the loneliness, but FOMO—the fear of missing out—that keeps you on social media for hours and hours, sending you down a rabbit hole of negative thoughts and isolation. You are more sensitive than you give yourself credit for—just being aware of how much screen time you allow yourself will actually make you feel better. A good start may be to use a timer when you engage in social media. It can be an old-fashioned egg timer, hourglass, or even a timer app on your phone. You can try asking yourself—am I using social media to escape something else I think I ought to be doing in real life? Instead, consider picking up a hobby, craft, or other new activity.

    Do what you can to remain aware of what triggers you to turn to social media. Try and replace those behaviors and satisfy that craving with a healthier activity.Not all forms of social media are equally isolating. People usually show off their best moments in Facebook posts, which may lead you to compare your life to theirs. Twitter can be harmful if you are trolled by negative users who comment on your posts. Dating apps, while helpful to some, may increase feelings of social rejection and loneliness. A healthier idea is to choose one form of social media and use it to build meaningful relationships with other platform users. Then, you can develop authentic social connections that may very well bring you into an accepting community. After all, that is the supposed usefulness and benefit of participating in social media.

If you are experiencing isolation due to alcohol misuse, know that treatment is available. Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? today and speak to an addiction specialist about getting help.

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