Loneliness has hit all-time highs in recent years. It can be incredibly difficult to feel like there is no one you can turn to for a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. Social isolation can make you feel like you truly are the only person in the world. In many cases, an isolated person may turn to the temporary and costly comforts of alcohol.
This is a dangerous game to play, but it has been a very common one, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. We will discuss why isolation can lead to excessive alcohol use, alcohol use disorder, and why it is always important to connect with other people.
Alcohol Use in New Mexico
Alcohol consumption has increased significantly since 2020 nationwide. As a matter of fact, there has been a 21% increase in alcohol consumption since the start of the pandemic. This is nationwide, but The Land of Enchantment has been impacted as well.
Let’s discuss New Mexico’s history with alcohol use. New Mexico has a very difficult history as the state has ranked either first, second, or third in alcohol-related deaths since 1981. This is 40 years of being one of the leaders in alcohol-related deaths. One in five deaths of adults ages 20-64 in the state was due to alcohol. This affected the Hispanic population of New Mexico significantly as well, as 61.6 people per 100,000 had succumbed to an alcohol-related death.
Starting Early: Adolescent Alcohol Use
Adolescent alcohol use is incredibly common in New Mexico. In a 2019 survey, it was found that 10% of middle school students reported current drinking, while 29% of high school students reported the same thing. Why are these statistics so high? Well, there are several reasons for this. According to Liz Vincent, executive director of Breaking the Silence New Mexico — a nonprofit that promotes mental health education, advocacy, and well-being for teens, youth, and adults — one of the main reasons is adolescents self-medicating.
“Children under 5 who have experienced adverse traumas don’t get diagnosed until their early teens, and by that time, they start self-medicating,” Vincent said. “That’s where the drugs and alcohol come in; it’s a symptom of mental illness, and until you get to the root cause of why young people are self-medicating, the addiction just continues and continues.”
Vincent said the problem is compounded by the fact that many children (specifically LGBTQ+ kids) may come from hostile home environments. This can lead to self-medication in the form of alcohol/substance use and, in unfortunate cases, suicide.
“Sadly, New Mexico is number one in youth suicide, and it’s three years running against the national average,” Vincent said. “It’s the number one killer of youth ages 10-18.
While alcohol use has been consistent within New Mexico, as well as the statistics of youth suicide, the state of the world has contributed to these statistics.”
Something we can all probably say is: No one expected the COVID-19 pandemic. These have been unprecedented times, and the pandemic has been one of the main contributing factors to increased alcohol use. The isolation felt by so many hurts.
“What happens with mental illness is that on average, it takes 10 years to get a diagnosis. … Sadly, we don’t have the statistics for 2020/2021 yet, so most of the CDC reports are going off of 2019; and those statistics were bad. What we’re going to see when these new statistics come out is an absolute crisis,” Vincent said.
A study conducted by researchers at Making Caring Common stated that 36% of Americans reported feeling lonely frequently in October of 2020. However, the shocking statistic is that 61% of those ages 18 to 25 reported much higher levels of loneliness.
In a pandemic, it is also nerve-wracking to have an in-person connection with others. There are other ways to connect, but we will discuss those later in the piece. First, we need to discuss the specifics of alcohol use disorder (AUD) and why connection is so important.
Alcohol Use Disorder Explained
Commonly known as alcoholism, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is an addiction to alcohol. There is actually a way to determine if you yourself have AUD. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), these are the criteria to determine if you have AUD:
In the past year, have you:
- Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
- More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other aftereffects?
- Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
- Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
- Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
- Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unprotected sex)?
- Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
- Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?
If you answer “yes” to two to three questions, then you have mild AUD; answering “yes” to four to five questions means you have moderate AUD; and answering “yes” to six or more questions means that you have severe AUD.
How Isolation Leads to Alcohol Use Disorder
As we’ve been discussing, about 36% of Americans considered themselves to be lonely in 2020. Loneliness doesn’t feel good, and that feeling can translate into emotional and physical health issues. Loneliness has several negative health effects, including a weakened immune system, poor sleep, and arthritis. It can also lead to Type 2 diabetes because loneliness sometimes leads to unhealthy eating patterns. The most alarming negative effect, however, is that this can lead to increased use of addictive substances, such as alcohol.
Loneliness can trigger feelings of anxiety, sadness, and despair. These feelings can take a big toll on a person, and many people may want to self-medicate. This self-medication can translate into alcohol addiction, which is why loneliness should be taken seriously. This also stresses the importance of connection.
Why Connection Is Important
Whether we are in a pandemic or not, connecting with others is beyond important. Of course, it can save you from boredom, but it is also more than that. Social connection has been proven to help your emotional well-being. Being connected can help lower depression and anxiety, help regulate emotions, and even lead to higher self-esteem. This shows why human connection is so important.
This can be very difficult, though, especially if you live in a more rural area during these unprecedented times.
“The problem [in rural New Mexico] is two-fold because there is a lack of providers in therapists, psychiatrists, adolescent psych, etc.,” Vincent said. “Also, add in poverty; they may not have access to healthcare, which is why we focus on those rural and frontier areas to bring our programs in the schools and in the communities.”
One of the main goals of Breaking the Silence, which is funded by the New Mexico Department of Health, is to end the stigma and silence surrounding mental health and suicide.
Connection not only helps with our emotional health but our physical health, too. One study from Stanford showed that lack of social connection is a greater risk to human health than obesity, high blood pressure, and even smoking. On the other hand, increased social connection:
- Strengthens your immune system
- Leads to a 50% increased chance of living longer
- Helps you recover from disease faster
Even saving you from boredom is an important part of connection. Why? Because boredom is a catalyst for addiction. If there is absolutely nothing to do and no one to connect with, this can become loneliness, and this loneliness can fuel addiction.
Who Can I Turn To?
This is a valid question. Sometimes it can be tough to find the right people to turn to, or find anyone. But remember: There is someone else feeling the same way. We will discuss all the possible people you can find to ease the loneliness and even find help for alcohol use disorder.
If you come from a healthy family, consider spending time with them when you start to feel that loneliness seep in. It can be healthy all around as studies have shown that spending time with your family actively reduces loneliness. Also, don’t be afraid to confide in them if you feel like your loneliness may be leading to addiction, because a support system is important.
If you are feeling a bit lonely, chances are your friends are, too. While being around good friends can help with loneliness, being a good friend helps with loneliness, too. Friendships also increase your sense of belonging and purpose and encourage you to avoid unhealthy habits such as addiction (this being dependent on the friends you have). In recent years, the question for many has become: How in the world do I meet with my family and friends during a pandemic?
While this isn’t exactly like in-person interaction, this is still a fantastic way to ease that loneliness. Digital interaction, such as on Zoom and FaceTime, can help with that feeling of loneliness since you are still seeing other faces as opposed to only hearing voices and texting them.
There are many people who believe in a Higher Power that can help with feelings of loneliness. No matter the religion, these groups can heavily impact loneliness. According to a study, religious attendance is associated with higher levels of social integration and social support. These groups can also help if you feel like you are getting addicted to alcohol by offering guidance. Another group that can help is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
How Shadow Mountain Recovery Can Help You
Shadow Mountain Recovery can help you with alcohol use disorder treatment as well as helping you find a caring community. There are treatment options that can facilitate a group of people, and there are communities that can help you with loneliness and isolation. One form of treatment that is beneficial for those struggling with loneliness is group therapy.
Group therapy helps to weaken the stigma (negative and unfair beliefs) of addiction. People have reported that group therapy helped them out even more than they thought it would. Group therapy provides clients with an amazing support system. Clients in group therapy can help with different challenges that another client might be going through during recovery while still holding each other accountable.
Group therapy shows clients that alcohol addiction is common. Group therapy is also helpful in growing interpersonal skills. It can be very helpful to listen to other people who are going through the same addiction and feelings of loneliness as it puts things in perspective for clients. Not only does group therapy show how common addiction is, but it also shows the diversity of addiction. There are so many people that struggle with AUD, and group therapy shows that it affects people of all backgrounds.
Group therapy can ease loneliness by building camaraderie within the therapy space. While being vulnerable in a group may not be comfortable overnight, it will make group therapy much more rewarding and fulfilling. Group therapy also provides a safe space for clients to be themselves. Everyone in group therapy has the same goal in mind: recovery. This can help build relationships and make clients much more comfortable.
Group therapy has clients learn how to relate to the other clients who share their stories and has led clients to report feeling an enhanced sense of self-acceptance. Another way Shadow Mountain Recovery can help you is through our alumni groups.
Alumni Groups at Shadow Mountain Recovery
Recovery doesn’t stop when you leave the treatment center. Clients have the option to participate in alumni groups in order to help others struggling with addiction as well as prevent their own relapse. These types of groups are beneficial because it continues the tradition of being around like-minded people while helping others who were in a position that you were once in.
Start Your Journey at Shadow Mountain Recovery
Isolation and loneliness can be stressful to deal with, and they can trigger addiction. Shadow Mountain Recovery’s goal is to give you evidence-based alternatives to 12-step treatment while also giving you a community of caring individuals. Our group therapy and alumni groups are here to make sure you don’t feel alone during this process. Call 505-657-2117 to start your journey.