Surviving Spouse Corner: Loneliness Can Lead to Addiction

By Pat Farnsworth, member, Surviving Spouse Advisory Committee

Recent research suggests loneliness and depression often can lead to addiction. There are many addictions: chocolate, alcohol, gambling, drugs, shopping, and others. Loneliness seems to impair the brain’s ability to exercise control over our desires, emotions, and behaviors. The death of a spouse frequently leads to isolation and a lack of social activity (a recent subject of scientific study).

Human beings are social animals. Friendships are needed to survive, and psychologists find humans have a fundamental need for inclusion in group life and for close relationships. A lack of close friends, family, and social contacts brings discomfort and distress known as loneliness. These feelings tear away at our emotional well-being and cause stress that can lead to addictive behaviors. 

During the Vietnam War, about 20 percent of servicemembers became addicted to heroin. After returning home, 95 percent of those simply stopped using heroin. This is attributed to the shift from a frightening daily experience to a safer more comfortable setting and relationships with family and friends and demonstrates how family bonds and social activity can combat addictive behaviors. 

In adults, loneliness is a major precipitant of depression and alcoholism or another addiction. Considerable research has been done on situations that might lead to these addictions. If there is a history of alcoholism or another addiction in one’s family, there might be a genetic predisposition to the use of substances to relieve loneliness. Many people turn to substances because they are lonely — and many people are lonely because they are addicted to substances. As the disease of addiction progresses, many people lose friends and damage relationships with family members, leaving them physically, mentally, and even spiritually alone.

Taking measures to remedy loneliness can be powerful therapy. Through fellowship, friendship, and connections it is possible to break the cycle of isolation and addiction. As humans, we are social creatures, and we depend on each other for survival.