Loneliness in Recovery

Ioana Cozma
Morgan Blair
Written by Ioana Cozma on 01 November 2023
Medically reviewed by Morgan Blair on 01 November 2023

Loneliness in recovery is normal, but it may be detrimental to your progress. This article discusses why loneliness appears, its dangers, and how to manage these feelings in beneficial ways. 

Loneliness in Recovery

Why can recovery be a lonely process?

The acute sense of loneliness you feel in recovery is normal. Here are five reasons why:

1. Breaking old ties is difficult

Recovery may feel lonely because you must distance yourself from old social circles or activities revolving around substance use. Abandoning once-central relationships and pastimes may create a void leading to loneliness.

2. Addiction has a stigma

Addiction still has a lingering stigma. Even if you are on your road to sobriety, you may still feel judged or misunderstood. This judgment may manifest as shame, making it more difficult to seek out your loved ones or share your experiences.

3. Emotional regulation

Substances are often a means to manage or numb emotions during active addiction.

Recovery faces you with the challenge of processing a rush of emotions without the previous coping mechanism. This challenge may increase your loneliness as you feel nobody else understands your feelings’ intensity and complexity.

4. Physical and psychological withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms in early recovery may create barriers between you and your surroundings. Both physical discomfort and psychological distress make engaging in social activities or maintaining relationships a challenge.

5. Fear of relapse

The fear of relapse may be paralyzing in recovery. This concern may make you hesitate to attend social gatherings, especially if they involve triggers or temptations. This fear, coupled with active avoidance of social contexts, can enhance your existing loneliness.

How loneliness can negatively affect recovery

Though loneliness can be a normal experience in the recovery process, it can have negative effects on your sobriety. Here are some of the main reasons why that happens.

1. Increased risk of relapse

Social isolation is a stressor you may not know how to tackle healthily. Loneliness might push you to return to substance use as a coping mechanism or to fill the emotional void.

2. Mental health implications

Individuals in recovery often deal with psychological withdrawal symptoms like depression, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness. Loneliness exacerbates these emotional states, thus making your recovery more difficult and increasing the risk of relapse.

3. Reduced motivation

Loneliness may sap the motivation needed to continue the hard work of recovery. Conversely, being part of a tight-knit community offers encouragement and reinforcement. A support network may celebrate sobriety milestones or help you stop when you feel the need to consume a substance. 

4. Lack of accountability

Your loved ones and friends offer a level of accountability. Checking in with each other and sharing experiences helps you maintain sobriety. By comparison, loneliness makes it easier to slip without anyone noticing.

5. Hindered development of coping mechanisms

Solid relationships help you develop healthy coping skills, learn from each other, and build resilience. Loneliness reduces your opportunities to learn or practice these skills, leaving you more vulnerable when dealing with triggers.

Tips for dealing with loneliness in recovery

Learning to deal with the inherent loneliness in recovery helps you avoid the risks above and prevent relapsing. Below are some useful tips.

1. Accept and reframe

Accepting loneliness as part of recovery may help you focus on solutions. For example, you may reframe this feeling as a passing emotion instead of a permanent one. Or, you may view it as an opportunity of time and space to grow.

2. Join a support group

Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or SMART Recovery connect you with people who understand your journey without judgment. This acceptance decreases your sense of shame and allows you to focus on sobriety.

3. Seek professional help

Therapy teaches you to make amends, rebuild broken relationships, and forge new ones. You will also learn to manage possible triggers that may arise in some social situations, such as the presence of alcohol.

4. Cultivate new hobbies and activities

Engaging in new activities may help replace old, substance-related pastimes and provide opportunities to meet new people. Joining a cooking class, volunteering at a local shelter, or taking guitar lessons is therapeutic and socially fulfilling.

5. Repair and foster connections with non-addicted friends and family

Building a network within the recovery community offers you assistance, validation, and useful coping tools. However, nurturing relationships with non-addicted friends and family provides stronger support and interpersonal connections.

6. Adopt a pet

Pet adoption is a commitment that shouldn't be taken lightly. However, caring for a pet gives you purpose, structure, and unconditional love. These feelings help fight loneliness and recenter you so you may eventually forge meaningful relationships with other people.

7. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness practices, including meditation and prayer, teach you how to ground yourself in the present. These practices build self-acceptance and emotional resilience, helping you reframe and fight against loneliness.

Resources:

  1. Zwick, J., Appleseth, H., & Arndt, S. (2020). Stigma: how it affects the substance use disorder patient. Substance abuse treatment, prevention, and policy, 15(1), 50.
  2. Koob G. F. (2015). The dark side of emotion: the addiction perspective. European journal of pharmacology, 753, 73–87.
  3. Keng, S. L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies. Clinical psychology review, 31(6), 1041–1056.

Activity History - Last updated: 01 November 2023, Published date:


Reviewer

Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan is a mental health counselor who works alongside individuals of all backgrounds struggling with eating disorders. Morgan is freelance mental health and creative writer who regularly contributes to publications including, Psychology Today.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 30 October 2023 and last checked on 01 November 2023

Medically reviewed by
Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan Blair

Reviewer

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