Q: How does loneliness contribute to addiction?
The effects of loneliness on the brain and biochemistry of the body are highly detrimental to our health. Being placed in isolation by others, or placing oneself in isolation disrupt the neurotransmitters of the brain leading to depression and other ailments like schizophrenia. In this context, isolation and loneliness can also happen to an individual in a room full of others if the individual does not feel safe, secure, and comfortable in their social surroundings. Using 'addictive substances' to activate the brain's neurotransmitters in the brain can become an easy relief because those substances release the same endorphins that receiving a hug from someone you love does. The more isolated an individual feels or becomes, the more likely they are to engage in endorphin-activating (rewarding) activity to try to escape the detriment of that very unhealthy, and stress-inducing isolation.
What happens to us during our developmental years is massively impactful on the way we become as adults. If we weren't given enough love and attention, or we were given too much attention (say, we were incessantly leaned on by someone who was supposed to be a leader and a strong supporting guide through life), both scenarios will induce a stress response. The first one will set up a stress response in the form of a nerve-affecting fear of abandonment at the slightest suggestion of being left out, and the latter will set up a stress response in the form of a nerve-affecting claustrophobia at the slightest responsibility for another's emotions. The second individual will have difficulty with genuine, committed, loving connection, and the abandoned individual will experience anxiety at any hint that they might be left or ignored again. Both scenarios impair the individual in their ability to form lasting, genuine connections to other people, all the way from kindergarten to adulthood. Imperfect child-rearing conditions like these are partially why many individuals are set up to repeat isolating behaviours that lead to loneliness.
Q: Is loneliness really that bad for us?
Yes. What's revolutionary to hear is, A) how dangerous loneliness is not only to our emotional health, but to our physical health, and B) how effective social connectivity and cooperation are on the activity of neurotransmitters between nerve synapses in the brain. Engaging with others is so important that opiate-like neurochemicals are sent off and received within the brain when we are building lasting social bonds. Gregory Berns Ph.D. from Emory University and P. Read Montague Ph.D. from Virginia Tech described to me that dopamine receptors will actually increasingly die off when we don't take part in positive social gatherings. The adverse effects of social isolation are quite horrifying. A piece published in aeon by Shruti Ravindran on solitary confinement within the US prison system, used the example of tens of studies spanning decades, to show how isolation, loneliness, and rejection will all diminish cognitive abilities and self-control; additionally they lead to inflammation in the young, and help develop chronic illness like cardiovascular disease and hypertension in adults, and they can onset early Alzheimers's disease in the elderly. Dr. Bruce McEwan from Rockefeller University has also published multiple study results showing how loneliness can kill neurons in the hippocampus which is responsible for aspects of memory, over-activate the amygdala which is where threats are perceived and can damage the cerebral cortex which helps us with impulse control.
The more we shy away from social connection, the more damage we do to our brains and necessary bio-functioning. Guy Winch Ph.D. has described how loneliness can actually kill you: he spoke of his findings that chronic feelings of rejection increase your likelihood of an early death by 14%. Loneliness causes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and suppresses your immune system. One study by Psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham University detailed that loneliness can affect your health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A forerunner in the research showing how emotional pain is just as bad for us as physical pain, Psychologist and author John Caccipone from the University of Chicago reported that loneliness is twice as unhealthy to our bodies as obesity. Most people who commit suicide had self-isolating tendencies near the ends of their lives, embodying the unseen pain that loneliness can induce within.
Our biggest problem is that if this research isn't shared with the public to the extent it should be, we will continue to think it's okay to shy away from family, friends, and coworkers when we feel stressed or irritated. It feels like the easiest option, and in fact has become the easier option because we're creating more and more 'rewarding' stimuli (junk food, the Internet, video games) to distract us from the negative effects of being alone. But because feeling lonely is clearly so bad for us, most of us will compulsively engage in a stimulating activity or substance that releases those same endorphins that naturally heal the body we get from bonding with others.
Q: If people are lonely, why don't they just go hang out with someone or do something social?
Taking the time and energy to learn how to gain back trust and rid the system of our internal sensitivities to others, will build up resilience to addictive behaviours. However, the way we live today does not make that easy. Finding other genuine individuals to connect with is rare because of the competitive and stressful environment we've created in the West. People are frustrated because they have to spend the majority of their days working just to cover their most basic needs of shelter and food. There isn't much time leftover in a day to relax - and it's much easier to slump down in front of a TV than organize a dinner party or community event after a hard day at work. One easy thing we can point to is again repeated behaviour. If we’re so used to self-isolating, or hanging out by ourselves, it becomes the neurological trench we’re the furthest into. The more you spend time by yourself, the harder it is to reach out to others and the more stressful it can seem to do so. This is why it becomes so hard for inmates who are finally let out of solitary to connect with other inmates after a prolonged time. It also might help explain their aggressive behaviour towards others - the time spent isolated sets the up to believe that others are conspiring against them, or simply just don’t like them, when that may not even be the case.
Loneliness is highly damaging to us both mentally and physically, but it's increasingly more difficult to find oneself in an engaged, connected, social-centric community in the West. Associate Professor John F. Kelly from Harvard University Medical School conducted a study showing that this was precisely why AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) is one of the only recovery programs with a decent success rate for those who continue going to meetings. Because they are connecting in a genuine way and have a reliable social network to help them replace what they were getting from their addiction. The lead researcher on the longest study on Happiness, Dr. Robert Waldinger describes how being in a securely committed, contented marriage was a precursor for good health. Yet in the West family split-ups are skyrocketing, and youth today are so reluctant to marry that there are more people between 20 to 35 who are still single than ever in history. This recent phenomenon of a more and more solo lifestyle also connects back to the early childhood trauma discussed before; that of being either suffocated or abandoned in the developmental years. So forming a life-long, non-stressful partnership is a great challenge for those individuals.
New Yorker columnist Neil Strauss who wrote the bestseller 'The Game' and who is an open sex addict, described this inability to connect genuinely with women because he feared their emotions and being needed. He describes the nerve response that was triggered by relationships because his mother leaned on him so often that he was thrown into the role of caregiver far earlier than he should have been, which is stressful for a child. Of course, it's important to understand the role of the mother's own rejection in this scenario. Dr. Guy Winch also described to me how rejection can be so harmful to the physical functioning of the body that Tylenol, typically used for physical pain, can actually act on pain resulting from rejection. Emotional pain lights up the same parts of the brain that physical pain does in fMRI scans. So because Strauss' mother was routinely rejected and dismissed by his father, her physical pain was so great that with nowhere to turn and no knowledge of the damage it would do to her sons, she leaned on them as her only known resort. Her loneliness was so insufferable yet she had no information on what it was doing to her biophysically.
This again ties into the fear of others that is residual from childhood trauma. The stress that comes from that trauma and the inability to feel normal rushes and fluxes of endorphins, dopamine, and cortisol that those who had great childhoods have. It's also known that the more we isolate, the more negatively we think about others, even if we are wrong about that pattern of thinking. Capitalism also drives competition and aggressive behaviour, when that is not our natural state. We are also working longer hours for less pay and fighting to keep jobs to even think about starting a family that we can support. You add all this stress and then create highly salient stimuli like junk food, pornography, cocaine, even prescription pills, and you have a recipe for escaping that stress but only for a brief moment. It will not last.
Q: How can social connectivity help heal an addicted individual?
If given an affectionate or supportive community to swoop in, trauma won't always translate into addiction. A person's brain will slowly rewire to trust and feel safe around others. The emerging field of neuroplasticity confirms how a brain can lay new framework on top of old patterns of beliefs and nervous system malfunctioning. If every time a person begins to speak and people listen, or every time they ask for a hug, they are securely responded to, their brain slowly ditches the old fear response and feels more comfortable, stable, and relaxed around others.
When the nervous system goes into overdrive, and the stress response is present too often, as adults we have learned what behaviours to seek in order to reduce those cortisol levels. In addition to the operant conditioning discussed earlier (repeated behaviour), the most potent things that reduce the cortisol responsible for stress, and that release endorphins within the brain, also align with the things humans have become most strongly addicted to: alcohol, cigarettes, narcotics, porn, and junk food. Consuming all of these substances releases endorphins is very high amounts; the reward centre of the brain "lights up" - it becomes more active when these things are consumed, and even more so when we have conditioned our desire for them. All of these substances reduce stress within an instant. Dopamine sets you on a drive toward them, and endorphins are released when you consume them. So, the more stress an individual faces, or the more often the body goes into the stress response, the more often they need to do something to get out of those negative states. And the fastest, most efficient way is to consume highly rewarding substances, and commit highly rewarding activities, or get a hug from someone you love, which isn't always easy or plausible in today's very isolating world.
Overall, childhood trauma is deeply damaging to both the body and the brain due to the stress response it sets up in us, and we have the memory stored in us that consuming these highly salient stimulants gets us out of the bad state residual stress from that trauma puts us in. Obviously, the more a child is ignored or beaten, the more solidified that stress response becomes, and the harder it becomes for the brain and central nervous system to develop in a healthy way. The more abuse one suffers, the harder of a time the individual has dealing with stress without using a substance. Therefore the harder it becomes to go through life without seeking these rewarding substances in absence of happy and secure social environment.
Q: If a hug from someone you love releases these same endorphins as addictive stimulants do, why aren't we all hugging each other all the time instead of acting out our addictions?
If people who have experienced abandonment or abuse have those traumatic memories stored within, their stress response to other people later in life is malfunctioned. So for example, if they're having a conversation and the other person diverts their eyes, or walks away from them, or even worse: yells at them, it becomes far more stressful than if the same thing happened to an individual who hadn't experienced abandonment, rejection, or abuse in their households. The people in our families and in our homes are supposed to be there in a secure, supportive, and caring manner. If an individual has never experienced that, dealing with others will induce the stress response too often which will make it much easier to isolate - and therefore not have to deal with rejection or aggression from others.
This is how the popularity of TV, video games, and internet chat rooms or social media expanded so rapidly. People suddenly didn't have to deal with the negative stress response they usually suffer when physically in the same room as others. But they could also still communicate and experience other people's stories, which is what every single one of us truly needs. Yet the negative consequence of these isolating inventions, is that we aren't getting the skin-to-skin, or eye-to-eye contact that is necessary - even in adulthood - to regulate our stress and increase our natural, sustainable endorphin activity. This is precisely why addiction forms within those who have self-isolating tendencies. They may go shopping, gambling, clubbing, binge on TV shows, or stay for endless hours at the office working to increase their sales, just in order to not feel the negative repercussions that come from that inevitable loneliness. But yet they have developed such an ingrained, subconscious fear of connecting with others to ask for support or relax into a hug.