Social Connection: More Important than you may Realize

Most people think it’s the rush of pleasure associated with drugs and alcohol that causes people to become addicted – which makes sense. We know that drugs and alcohol (and certain behaviors like gambling, sex and overeating), trigger a release of chemicals in the brain’s pleasure center. This makes us feel good, so we go back for more.

So, why doesn’t everybody who drinks alcohol or uses drugs become addicted? In reality, only about 10 percent of individuals who use a potentially addictive substance end up becoming addicted. Most people who use medications to treat legitimate pain never become dependent.

This means that the vast majority of people who use drugs and alcohol recreationally never develop addiction or dependence. Yet, the number of people getting hooked on heroin, cocaine, and prescription painkillers is soaring.

What are we missing?

Rats and Addiction – The Experiment

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America conducted an interesting study in the late 1970s. Rats were placed in single, isolated cages. Each rat had access to two water bottles – one filled with pure water and one with water infused with heroin or cocaine. Inevitably, the rats would choose the drug-infused water, drinking the water over and over again until many of them eventually died.

On the surface, the results were plausible and appeared to confirm beliefs about the addictive qualities of drugs and the inevitable outcome. The study was the subject of a provocative anti-drug television commercial in the 1980s.

However, a Canadian researcher questioned the test results, noting that the rats were alone in the tiny cages, with no companionship and no stimulation – basically the rat version of solitary confinement. A second study changed things up considerably by following groups of rats in huge, elaborate cages. Each cage had both types of water, along with tasty rat food, colorful toys, tunnels for exploring and plenty of space to mate and raise their young.

Although the rats sometimes sampled the drugged water, they clearly preferred the plain water. Instead of getting high, they spent their time eating, playing, relaxing or mating.

The takeaway from the two studies is that addiction may not be due solely to the drugs themselves, but may be a more complex problem associated with loneliness, isolation, and a deep need for community and connection.

Like Rats, Humans are Social Animals

Countless studies over the years have confirmed that infants who develop close bonds with parents or adult caregivers grow up to be happy, emotionally adjusted adults who see the world as a safe, comfortable place populated with friendly, helpful people.

On the other hand, infants who grow up without secure attachments often don’t develop as they should, a condition known as “failure to thrive.” They are more prone to self-destructive behavior during adolescence. As adults, they tend to have trouble forming friendships and close partnerships.

Addiction May be a Societal Problem

We already know that addiction is not a result of weakness or lack of control. Is addiction a problem stemming not from the substances themselves, but to isolation and loss of community in our materialistic, fast-paced modern society?

Still Many Unanswered Questions about Addiction

Addiction is a complex disease with no simple answers. Isolation and lack of intimacy appear to be a major component in addiction, but at the same time, many people who feel lonely and isolated never turn to drugs and alcohol to fill their empty spots, while many people are surrounded by warm, caring, loving families, but still turn to drugs and alcohol, suggesting that that addiction isn’t only a family issue, but something we should all, as a society, be concerned about.

There’s little doubt, of course, that some people are genetically predisposed to addiction – yet another piece of the puzzle. The importance of human connection may not be the entire answer, but it’s certainly worth serious consideration.

Addiction Treatment and Human Connection

Drug and alcohol treatment centers and rehabs are paying attention to this new perspective and many are highly motivated to help addicted people find ways of establishing close connections with other human beings. It’s clear that human connection is a critical part of recovery, and although it’s harder to develop connections as adults, it’s very possible, even for people who have been seriously addicted for years. A good starting point is the personal connection to the various therapists and professionals in treatment, they are trained to support establishing successful connections and foster human interaction in a safe and secure environment.

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