Why Is Social Connection Important for Addiction Recovery?
If you look at most approaches to addiction treatment, from AA to residential programs, you’ll notice that social connection plays a big role--perhaps the most important role. While treatment programs typically include individual therapy and lifestyle changes, they also focus heavily on group therapy, family therapy, and group bonding activities. This isn’t to promote a summer-camp atmosphere; it’s the serious work of recovery. The following are some of the main reasons why social connection is so important for addiction recovery.
Connection Is a Basic Human Need
First, it’s important to understand that having family and friends you trust, that you feel comfortable talking to, and whom you can rely on is not just a luxury, it’s a real human necessity. While chatting with your friends or complaining to a sympathetic ear may seem frivolous in the scheme of things, they are the type of interactions that hold communities together and make you feel like you belong.
Although we tend to value self-reliance--especially men, and especially in the US--we all understand instinctively that our safety and wellbeing ultimately depend on cooperation. In our ancestral past, exile likely meant death, so feeling socially alienated is a major source of stress. In modern society, financial transactions have replaced many of our social transactions but in the end, we all need some sense of connection to feel happy.
Using Drugs to “Fill a Void” May Be Literally True
We’ve known for a long time that feeling unable to connect to others is a common theme among people who struggle with substance use. Whenever you get to know someone with a history of addiction, you will typically find they also have a history of trauma, abuse, or neglect. These kinds of experiences, especially in childhood, impair your ability to form trusting and meaningful relationships later in life.
People often say they use drugs to “fill the void.” Recent research suggests that may literally be true. In one fascinating experiment, researchers gave some participants a placebo for four days and gave other participants naltrexone, an opioid antagonist that prevents opioids from binding to receptors in the brain. The participants were then asked to rate their social interactions in terms of their feelings of social connection.
On the final day, they were given a task specifically designed to elicit feelings of social connection, such as reading statements of gratitude written by people close to them. After a 10-day clearing period to get the naltrexone out of the participants’ system, the placebo group was given naltrexone and vice versa. The researchers found that while taking naltrexone, participants reported significantly lower feelings of social connection.
Interestingly, other sources of pleasure appeared to remain unaffected. That suggests that our opioid receptors may be specifically related to the pleasure we derive from social connection. When those needs aren’t being met by healthy social interaction, the void may literally be filled by synthetic opioid molecules. The study also suggests that naltrexone injections, which are sometimes court-ordered for drug offenders, may actually inhibit authentic recovery.
Connection Reduces Stress
People recovering from addiction typically cite stress as their number one trigger for cravings. The type of stress doesn’t really matter, although we are all more vulnerable to certain kinds of stress. The feeling of being overwhelmed, feeling helpless, or feeling worthless makes you want to escape the situation. You feel like you can’t deal with it anyway, so you might as well go back to drugs and alcohol.
Social connection is one of the best buffers against stress. There are several reasons for this. One is that, as discussed above, socializing fills a basic human need. Just as you feel stressed when you’re hungry, you feel stressed when you are deprived of social interaction. The coronavirus pandemic illustrates just how strong this need is. People are willing to risk their lives and the lives of their family members to hang out in groups. Just as eating relieves the stress of hunger, social interaction relieves the stress of isolation.
Second, when you’re more socially connected, you have more resources available to solve problems. This is the underlying cause of the effect discussed above but it works on the rational level too. For example, being short on rent is much less stressful when you know a friend will lend you some money or a relative will let you stay with them if necessary. Often, just knowing these resources are available to you makes you feel more able to cope with stress, even if you never have to ask for help.
Connection Improves Your Health
Social connection isn’t just good for your mental health; it’s good for your physical health too. Research has linked chronic loneliness to a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and poor immune function--all common health problems caused by substance use, especially alcohol. In other words, if you feel chronically lonely in recovery, not only are you fighting an uphill battle to stay sober, but you may also be compounding already elevated health risks.
On the other hand, feeling connected reduces stress--and therefore stress-related illnesses--and increases the likelihood that you will continue other positive lifestyle changes and have access to medical care when you need it.
Connection Keeps You Focused on Recovery
Finally, having a strong sober network keeps you focused on recovery. There are always ups and downs in recovery. Sometimes you will feel very motivated and sometimes even the easiest part of your recovery plan will feel like an insufferable chore. Being part of a recovery-focused group will help keep you going even when your motivation is low or when you are distracted by other concerns.
You have frequent reminders of what you need to be doing in recovery, inspiring examples of what is possible if you stick with it, and possibly some cautionary examples reminding you of what’s at stake if you backslide. Furthermore, the dread of walking into a meeting and admitting you slipped is an extra incentive to stay strong in moments of temptation.
Social connection isn't the only factor in a strong recovery. Research also shows that genes play a major part in addiction risk. Furthermore, if your past experiences have impaired your ability to form social connections, you will probably need therapy to fix the problem. Just being more social won’t be enough on its own. However, having the right kind of sober support, reliable friends, and a good family environment can make a huge difference.
At The Foundry, we understand the importance of social connection in addiction recovery. We involve family in the recovery process to facilitate support, communication, and healthy boundaries. We also emphasize connection among our clients through group therapy and group activities. To learn more about our approach to treatment, call us today at (844) 955-1066.