Loneliness is an issue all of us contend with at some point in our lives.
When we’re very young, our parents or primary caregivers handle our loneliness for us. We feel an emotional need for connection, we cry, and they pick us up and hold us. The connection soothes us, we calm back down, and our tears fade. Gradually, over time, we learn to manage that type of loneliness on our own. We go to sleep without the need for a bedtime story. We learn to keep ourselves occupied – solo – for hours on end, without the need for connection and reassurance from parents or caregivers.
As we grow, our friends help us with feelings of loneliness. We learn this when we’re in school: we seek connection with peers, and those connections contribute to our overall sense of life satisfaction, quality of life, and emotional well-being.
Around that age – sometime during elementary school or middle school – is when most of us first experience loneliness in a conscious way. That makes sense, because it aligns with our stage of development. It’s the time when we first learn what relationships really are. We know they involve sharing, give and take, and trust
But what does that have to do with loneliness?
Here’s how Dr. Stephanie Cacioppo, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of Chicago School of Medicine, defines loneliness:
“Loneliness is a state of mind characterized by a dissociation between what an individual wants or expects from a relationship and what that individual experiences in that relationship.”
That’s the connection: loneliness is about relationships. It’s a state of mind, rather than a physical location. Dr. Cacioppo describes how most of us can understand this: there’s a difference between being alone on Valentine’s Day and feeling lonely. If you’re in a relationship where you get what you want and need from that relationship, you might be physically by yourself on Valentine’s Day, but not lonely. On the other hand, if you’re in a relationship where you don’t get what you want and need, you might have Valentine’s Day dinner with that person, yet still feel lonely.
In other words, loneliness is complicated.
Loneliness and Addiction
That’s why loneliness is often associated with alcohol use disorder (AUD) and substance use disorder (SUD), which are the clinical terms we now use to replace the word alcoholism and the phrase drug addiction. Loneliness and AUD/SUD are connected because one primary reason people use alcohol and/or drugs – and develop AUD and/or SUD – is to manage difficult, painful, complicated, and overwhelming emotions.
There’s more to it than that, though.
Loneliness often follows people from active addiction to recovery. Think about it like this: when a person stops drinking and using drugs and enters recovery, they need to change their lifestyle. More often than not, that involves changing both the things they do and the people they spend time with. People who drink hang around with other people who drink: that’s how they socialize. The same is true for people who use substances: the substance use is often the centerpiece of their peer and friend relationships. Then, when the person who drinks or the person who uses drugs stops drinking or using drugs, they need to stop spending time with their alcohol-using and/or drug using peers. Spending time with them would increase their risk of relapse, so they don’t.
But that leaves them lonely, without their primary coping mechanism – alcohol or drugs – and without the social network that used to make them feel connected.
That’s a tough dilemma.
Loneliness is contributing factor to AUD/SUD, and loneliness is often an outcome of initiating treatment and recovery from AUD/SUD.
Like we said: it’s complicated.
The rest of this article will address loneliness in the context of addiction. We’ll review the research on the topic – there’s not much – and conclude with our top ten tips on managing loneliness during recovery.
First, let’s look at the research.
Loneliness, Recovery, and SUD: What the Science Says
In the narrative review “Loneliness Amongst People With Substance Use Problems: A Narrative Systematic Review,” researchers examined the interaction between loneliness and substance use disorder (SUD). A narrative review is a type of research paper wherein researchers collect all the available peer-reviewed publications on a topic and identify any notable trends in the data. The goal of a narrative review is to condense decades of research into the essential components of what we know about a specific topic, then summarize that knowledge in a form that’s easier to access than it is in a series of publications released over time.
The authors of this review found 41 research publications on the topic of loneliness and addiction. After thorough analysis, they found that among people with SUD, the loneliness is associated with:
Physical health problems, including:
- Increased self-reported pain
- Increased pain intensity
- Low levels of self-rated physical health
- Poor sleep quality
Mental/emotional health problems, including:
- Increased levels of depression
- Low self-rated self-esteem
- Low self-reported wellbeing/quality of life
- Increased suicidality, i.e. suicidal ideation, suicide attempts
Social factors, such as:
- Low level of social support
- Limited relationships overall
- Few rewarding relationships
What that set of bullet points means is that among people with SUD who also report high levels of loneliness, those physical, mental, emotional, and social problems are more likely to be present than among people with SUD who do not report high levels of loneliness.
In addition, researchers found the following:
- Individuals in active addiction – i.e. those diagnosed with AUD or SUD and currently drink or use drugs – report higher levels of loneliness than people with AUD or SUD who are in later stages of recovery
- Individuals in early recovery – i.e. detox or less than six months – report higher levels of loneliness than people in later stages of recovery
- Self-reports from people diagnosed with AUD or SUD indicate they used alcohol or substances to avoid painful feelings of loneliness
- Loneliness increases risk of relapse for people with opioid use disorder (OUD)
- Loneliness increases risk of relapse for people with methamphetamine use disorder (MUD) and people who engage in polysubstance misuse. Polysubstance misuse refers to misusing more than one substance – prescription, illicit, or alcohol – at the same time
That information validates our motivation for writing this article. We know through direct experience and anecdotal evidence that loneliness can create problems for people in recovery. Now we have peer-reviewed data that shows loneliness is associated with the development of AUD/SUD and also increases the risk of relapse for people in recovery.
If you’re in recovery from AUD and/or SUD and experience loneliness that threatens your sobriety, we encourage you to read the tips below: they’re real, and they work. We also encourage you to share these tips with any friends or family members in recovery.
How to Handle Loneliness: Our Ten Best Tips
We collected these suggestions from people we know who are in recovery, clinicians who support people in treatment for AUD and/or SUD, and from the countless pearls of wisdom we’ve picked up in group counseling sessions, peer support meetings, and our training in AUD/SUD treatment. If you’re in recovery – and lonely – this list will help.
Ten Tips to Help Manage Loneliness During Recovery
1. Attend Community/Peer Support Meetings
Community/peer support meetings are a mainstay of recovery. Also called mutual aid groups, these meetings have been an important component of recovery for millions of people since the first community support group – Alcoholics Anonymous – appeared in the 1930s. And for millions, they’ve been the first line of defense against loneliness. Many groups now use the 12-step approach to addiction recovery. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) is for people who experience the disordered use of opioids, Gamblers Anonymous (GA) is for people with an unhealthy relationship to gambling, Overeaters Anonymous (OA) is for people seeking to get a handle on their relationship with eating – and that’s barely scratching the surface.
Our point here is twofold. First, 12-step meetings are a tried-and-true way for people in recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder (SUD) to build a positive social network and prevent loneliness. Second, there are groups to meet almost any need: if you think you’re alone, the chances are there are people out there facing challenges that are similar to yours – and hey meet regularly to talk about those challenges and offer one another support. That’s what everyone in recovery needs – and that’s why we recommend participating in these groups and attending these meeting as often as possible. And when you get invited out to coffee or lunch after the meeting, we encourage you to say “Yes, I’d love to join you.”
2. Participate in Family Events and Seek Old Friendships
This is an important one for people in recovery, and often filled with its own set of challenges. If you spent a significant amount of time in active addiction, you may have caused harm in your primary relationships. Your behavior may have damaged our relationship(s) with your parents, siblings, or children. If it has, work with your therapist, counselors, and recovery peers to formulate a plan to make amends and rebuild those relationships. If your behavior has not damaged your family relationships – but you isolate/opt-out because of shame or stigma – we encourage you to find a way to “Yes.” We want you to say yes to family dinners, holiday events, and simply spending time with your family. Their love can soothe your loneliness – if you let it. There is a disclaimer here: some family members are toxic, and interacting with them can put your recovery at risk. If you have any question about a specific family member, talk to your therapist or counselor: they can help you decide whether connecting with that family member is a positive step, or a step to avoid.
We also encourage you to seek out old friends. We advise against friends with whom your primary shared activity was drinking or using drugs, unless they’re also in recovery. We mean friends from the neighborhood, friends from school, or friend from childhood/middle school/high school. Reconnecting with friends like these after decades can be comforting, soothing, and restorative. That’s one of the best things about the internet and social media: you can find these people, offer to reconnect, and if they reciprocate, you can rediscover and renew valuable friendships, and create healthy social connections that help mitigate the loneliness associated with recovery.
3. Volunteer for Causes
Volunteering is a great way to get out of the house, be around people, and do something you know if good for the world. In that way, it ticks almost all the boxes required for a recovery-friendly activity: volunteering connects you to others, teaches you how to give back, and helps you focus on something other than yourself. There are almost unlimited volunteer opportunities. You can volunteer for:
- Homeless shelters
- Food banks
- Animal rescue centers
- Senior centers
- Nurseries or orphanages
- Environmental groups
- Social/political groups
4. Get Involved in Local Events
What we suggest here is to pay attention to what’s happening in your community or neighborhood and join in whenever you see an announcement for a public event. The best place to find these types of social opportunities is online. Neighborhoods often have groups on social media sites like Facebook or sites like Nextdoor. When you see any kind of announcement for any kind of social event, go participate. Most neighborhoods have events on all the public holidays. Think Halloween, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day – and the good thing about these events is that they’re designed to be kid/family friendly, meaning they’re organized around fun activities, rather than alcohol.
5. Join Active Groups
There are various types of groups you can join:
You don’t have to be a former high school or college sports star to enjoy recreational sports. Most big cities have fun, low-impact, moderate commitment leagues that are more about socializing than about intense athletic competition. You can find kickball teams, softball teams, flag football teams, volleyball teams, cycling teams – you name it, you can find it. As we mention, most teams for adults are more about being social than about being hardcore competitive – but those types of groups are out there, if that’s the kind of thing you’re interested in or want to pursue. Amateur soccer teams can get very serious. And YMCA lunchtime pickup basketball? Those games can be very serious indeed – and they’re also a great place to meet peers with similar interests.
Activity groups are for people with shared interests to get together and pursue those interest in either an organized setting or a social setting. Like sports groups, these can function anywhere on a continuum from casual to serious. For instance, a rock-climbing group may have beginner get-togethers that are fun and designed for newcomers, as well as meetups for serious climbing. The same is true for kayaking groups, hiking groups, backpacking groups, or mountain biking groups. Even birdwatching groups have a range: some organize birding competitions, while others organize relaxed birding experiences for newcomers.
Not everyone is interested in sports or being outside in nature. If that’s you, don’t worry: there’s a group for you out there. If you’re into model trains – there’s a group for you. Woodworking? You can find your people. Stamp or coin collecting? Like-minded enthusiasts want to meet you. Museum groups, art appreciation groups, music appreciation groups – they all exist, and they will all welcome you. And if you’re of a certain generation, there’s been a resurgence in the popularity of games like Dungeons and Dragons: you can break out your set of dice, dust off those old characters, crack open that Dungeon Master’s Guide, and go on a brand-new adventure, just like you were back in middle school.
6. Find a Sponsor
This is related to our first tip: attend peer/community support meetings. In the AA and 12-step world, the sponsor holds a special place. Here’s how AA defines what a sponsor is and the role they play: “A sponsor is an individual who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through A.A.” If you’re new in recovery, and experiencing intense loneliness, your sponsor can help. They answer questions and help you connect the dots between the advice you hear in AA/NA meetings and how to apply that advice in your daily life. If you’re curious about a finding a sponsor, ask anyone at an AA or NA meeting, click the link above, or talk to your therapist or counselor. Once you have a sponsor, they should be the first number on speed dial in your phone – and you should use that number often.
7. Be a Sponsor
For people early in recovery, finding a sponsor is an ideal way to learn about how to live the recovery lifestyle. If you have months, years, or even decades in recovery, becoming a sponsor can help keep you connected to your program, to other people, and active and engaged socially. That’s important: it’s a common misconception that people with years of recovery behind them have it easier than people new to recovery. In some cases, that’s true. However, the fact is that everyone gets lonely and need social contact. Therefore, if you’re experienced in recovery, and experiencing loneliness that’s difficult or loneliness that threatens your sobriety, we encourage you to become a sponsor. You’ll learn your wisdom is valuable, and rediscover the power of helping others: both will increase your self-esteem, and both will help decrease your feelings of loneliness.
8. Take a Class
This is easy advice: find something you’re interested in, sign up for a class, and go take it. Like activities and hobbies, classes exist on a continuum. You can sign up for an intensive six-month class in audio engineering – that’s one end of the continuum. You can sign up for a free Saturday morning workshop on composting for your flower garden – that’s another end of the continuum. In between there’s everything from courses at your local community college to that ballroom dancing group you’ve always been curious about. If you’re lonely, it’s time to follow up on an interest. Any interest will serve your purpose. Your job is to be proactive, sign up, and show up.
9. Be Patient
All our tips up to this point are about actions you can take and things you can do to mitigate or manage loneliness. This one is about your attitude towards your situation. You can do everything on our list above, but still have to wait – for the class to start, for the meeting time, for the weekend so you can meet up with your kickball team, or for your sponsor to return your call. Breathe, know you’ve done everything you can do, and remind yourself that as long as you stick to your program, you’re on the right track.
10. Cultivate Gratitude
Loneliness is hard. Loneliness can hurt. One thing we learned about loneliness while doing research for this article is that loneliness is as much about the perception of being disconnected from other people as it as about actual physical isolation. Most people in recovery know what it’s like to be in a room full of people, yet still have intense feelings of loneliness – that’s what the experts say when they talk about perceived disconnection. With this last tip, we want to remind you that – although this lonely moment or phase may be miserable – you’re in recovery, you have a program, and you take positive steps every day to stay on your program, stay in recovery, and stay sober. That means you’re alive and living life on your terms – rather than terms dictated by an alcohol or substance use disorder. That’s something to be grateful for. We remind you here that recovery is a gift, and your gratitude is one way to say thank you.
That’s our list.
If you follow these tips, you can handle the loneliness you experience. We know you can, because we’ve been lonely, followed these steps, and felt better. All ten of these tips matter, and all ten count. Start at the top and work your way down. By the time you get to number ten, we’re confident you’ll have a plan to manage your loneliness that will work.
We’re here for you.
Good luck – and go to a meeting!