A very dangerous and pervasive outcome of addiction in the tendency to isolate. Circumstances like conflict between friends and family members over one’s addiction can cause the addicted person to seek solitude. Warped thinking caused by extended substance abuse can rationalize the need for one to be alone because it creates and environment where he or she is not judged and can continue using. But it seems isolation has a much more damaging effect on person.
Social isolation can create a list of psychological problems from increased stress and anxiety, to increased feelings of depression. Rejection by others or other psychological wounds can hurt us deeper than almost anything else. These cause stress reactions in the body that increase stress hormones like cortisol and can lead to:
- Poor sleep
- Compromised immune system
- Cognitive decline (especially in the elderly)
- Manic or erratic behaviors
The fact is: loneliness isn’t good for anyone’s health. Those who isolate or live solitary lifestyles are found to die prematurely and have increased mortality rates compared to smoking and obesity.
Bruce K. Alexander, a Canadian psychologist from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, decided that early experiments done about isolation and drug use were missing a key element. In the early 1900s, an experiment was done on rats to show that addiction was based solely on chemical dependence. It was believed that drug addiction was the result of prolonged use of controlled substances which led to an uncontrollable addiction. The test went like this:
A rat is place in a cage alone. There are two water bottles in the cage, one containing only water and one containing water laced with cocaine. After he has discovered it and after only a short while the rat drinks exclusively from the cocaine-laced bottle and eventually dies. Thus, drug addiction is caused by exposure to drugs and physical addiction.
Alexander saw something wrong with this experiment: it didn’t really look like real life. The rat is left alone with nothing else to do, no other stimuli and no other options. To correct this flaw, he created an experiment in the 1970s that called “Rat Park.” Alexander and his team build an elaborate system of cages filled with anything a rat could want. It was essentially rat heaven, with cheese and fruit, bright colorful balls and toys, and lots of other rats. He then placed the same two water bottles, one pure water and one laced with cocaine in the cage. The outcome, however, couldn’t have been more different.
Alexander found that the rats in Rat Park rarely, if ever, drank from the cocaine-laced water bottle. Once some of them had discovered it the first time, they never returned to it. The rats were content to interact, eat and play and none of them overdosed on the cocaine-laced water.
Johann Hari does a great job analyzing the results of the “Rat Park” test in his book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Hari finds that it is not just chemical dependence that causes addiction, but the roots go much deeper to social isolation. Hari asserts that people inherently need to bond with something. It is in our DNA to make social connections and form meaningful relationships to satisfy the deepest parts of us. When we isolate, however, because of hurt or broken relationships, we will look for anything to bond with. If we can’t find comfort and companionship in people, we will look for it is drugs, in alcohol, or a wide variety of behaviors and actions that make us feel less alone.
Isolation is a very real and dangerous side of addiction. It might seem like the only way to avoid problems and continue in addictive behavior, but many studies have shown that isolation and loneliness can even be deadly. If you or a loved one are dealing with an addiction that has caused isolation and loneliness, it is important to seek help. Finding a support group and making connections with others who can understand you in crucial to beating addiction.