The Loneliest Number & You
In October 2011, long before most Americans had even heard of coronavirus, community health resource Recovery Connection published a list of ten common reasons why people use drugs or alcohol. It’s a fairly far-reaching list, covering both personal reasons such as #1: Experimentation and #5: Peer Pressure, as well as a few more defined causes like #2: Family History/Genetics and #7: Mental Health Disorders. It’s a good list, but for the most part, nothing out of the ordinary.
This list does not cite any references nor provide any information on where these ‘top reasons’ were pulled from. That’s not to say any of them are ‘incorrect’, or even misleading. With the increasing integration of Substance Use Education programs like D.A.R.E. into public school systems, in addition to further efforts at public education regarding the dangers of substance misuse, many of these top reasons could almost be seen as common knowledge.
Indeed, I found several similar pages listing ‘top reasons’ why individuals choose to consume mind-altering substances. Other well-respected addiction recovery sites such as SoberNation.com and DrugFree.org have comparable responses and do not offer any reference sources.
But Recovery Connection’s list had one item that hits far closer to home now than the (unnamed) article’s author would have ever expected it to back in 2011.
Research has shown loneliness is significantly associated with substance misuse and use disorders.
In 2014, a team of researchers led by Friederike Boehlen published a study linking loneliness in the elderly to use of Psychotropic drugs in The Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
In 2016, Tracy Butler and her colleagues published a critical review in the Journal of Alcoholism that demonstrated connections between social isolation during adolescence and increased vulnerability to later development of alcohol use disorder.
In 2019, The Gateway Foundation, which is considered by some to be a leading organization in evidence-based addiction treatment, published this excellent informative graphic breaking down the links between loneliness and substance use disorders.
And in a time like this, during COVID-19, when people have been forced to physically distance from others, the negative effects of loneliness can be dangerous among those vulnerable to substance misuse.
“Friendship is a lot like food”, writes Psychology Today author Hara Estroff Marano. “We need it to survive. Psychologists find that human beings have a fundamental need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships.”
Marano’s article on loneliness, accessible here, serves as a reminder of how dangerous the human psyche is to negative influences. According to Marano, the damage begins when an individual recognizes themselves as experiencing ‘loneliness’. From that point forward, this realization “plays through the head like an emotional soundtrack,” and begins to strip away at an individual’s general sense of well-being.
Marano’s work also cites a series of novel studies performed by psychologist John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago. These studies show that loneliness leads to a lower quality of care from medical professionals, increased likeliness of contracting illnesses, and increased suicide rates for all age groups.
Unfortunately, there’s no definitive solutions we can point to, especially not with the wide variety of restrictive circumstances imposed upon different people worldwide due to COVID-19 and the recent episodes of social unrest. As with many damaging psychological cycles that have the ability to affect our mental wellness, simply being aware of what’s happening is a first step towards reducing the detrimental effects of loneliness.
As far as the next steps are concerned, there are a few options that can help cut down on loneliness imposed by social distancing. BBC News recommends turning off your video capture when attending digital conferences or meetings, or simply moving the on-screen display of your own camera’s capture to the side when chatting with friends. This can help mitigate so-called ‘Zoom Fatigue’, a term the article uses to refer to the exhaustion and lack of social satisfaction an individual might experience during a zoom, or video, call.
This is due to the additional stress imposed on our brains when we are constantly made aware of how we look during a social interaction. There are several other reasons why our brains can grow tired of video calls – such as having to work harder to pick up on facial expressions or voice inflection due to low quality playback, but seeing one’s reflection during a social interaction is one of the two factors one can realistically change to alleviate the issue.
The other arises from the ‘all-in-one’ nature of video calls that interferes with how we view our lives. The Self-Complexity Theory suggests that individuals deem a variety of different contextual social interactions as healthy or good, thus increasing their self-appraisal. This not only includes, for example, having friends both inside and outside of a person’s work, but also the notion that social interactions with work friends will likely take place at a different time, under a different context, or in a different location when compared to non-work friends.
With digital conversations, however, the ability to swap from a weekly staff meeting to a movie night with friends without even so much as a need to stand up begins to eat away at that sense of a healthy variety of social interactions.
To mitigate this, try designating one room or desk in your living space as your ‘work area’. When you get on a video call for work, make sure to only do so from that area. While not as grand as true separation, this imposes some degree of contextual differentiation between different social interactions.