Research has linked social isolation to lower quality of life, health, and overall well-being, but how is isolation defined and what effects does it have on our thoughts and behaviors?
The term “isolating” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “setting apart from others” or “selecting from among others.” Although this term can be used to describe the separation of substances, isolation in regards to human behavior can be both emotional and physical in nature.
Emotional isolation occurs when an individual avoids engaging emotionally with another person. Examples may include avoiding meaningful conversation, withholding feelings, or not sharing in others’ grief or happiness.
Physical isolation occurs when an individual physically removes themselves from the presence of others. Examples include moving out of the family house, dropping out of school or quitting a job, and frequently seeking out solitary environments instead of joining group activities.
Isolation is very unhealthy for humans and some experts say it even increases the risk of mortality, just as the habits of smoking and consuming alcohol do.1 One study also found that loneliness due to social isolation can impair essential functions like sleep, in addition to mental and physical well-being.2
Isolation causes people to feel sad, hopeless, and abandoned, further compounding depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. Since social bonds are a defining characteristic of human behavior and are essential to the health and wellness of all people, a lack of social interaction has many lasting harmful effects—both physically and mentally.
Addiction and Isolation
When addressing addiction and isolation, one of the most important questions to ask is: Why do addicted individuals isolate themselves? Three of the main reasons people do so are:
1. To hide their substance abuse.
2. To avoid the reality of their problem and maintain their denial.
3. To avoid confrontation, judgment, and ridicule from others.
Socially isolated people are more likely to suffer from mental health and substance abuse problems. In fact, a study involving rats conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin determined that isolated rats were more vulnerable to addiction. When transposed and applied to addiction in humans, the results of the study found that social isolation leads to addiction more quickly and is more difficult to extinguish.3
Substance abuse can be either the effect or the cause of isolation. Individuals who have isolated themselves as a result of substance abuse typically experience feelings of denial, guilt, and fear. These emotions fuel inappropriate interaction with those around them, inciting rash behaviors as well as verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. As a result, the people in their life either cut them off or continually try to convince them to enroll in treatment at a drug and alcohol rehab center, eventually leaving the person alone and isolated in their addiction.
Once an addicted individual has successfully isolated themselves, changes in the brain cause them to become even more consumed by the substance abuse, prioritizing drug and alcohol use over all other things and neglecting relationships with children, spouses, siblings, and friends.
Isolation in Recovery
Even after completing inpatient rehab , some relationships may be damaged beyond repair, leaving individuals in recovery feeling lonely and deserted once again. Additionally, people in recovery often feel like they are alone after removing harmful relationships from their life, such as friends they used to drink with or local drug dealers they frequently interacted with.
Loneliness is a major risk factor for people in recovery and increased amounts of isolation can cause relapse. For this reason, addiction treatment specialists recommend participation in intensive outpatient programs. These types of extended care treatment programs provide peer support, accountability, and resources to help people in recovery maintain their sobriety. IOP groups also offer recovery support within a community and social interaction to reduce isolation and encourage the formation and growth of healthy relationships.