Contributor: Staff at Sierra Tucson
Thanksgiving is traditionally viewed as a time of communal gratitude, with families and friends coming together to enjoy each other’s company and reflect on the blessings of the previous year. As we all know, though, this idealized depiction doesn’t always align with the harsh reality many people face on the fourth Thursday of November and on other holidays.
For certain people, Thanksgiving and other days that are dedicated to shared celebrations serve only to exacerbate their feelings of loneliness or isolation. As difficult as this experience can be, it can become even more painful when a person turns to alcohol in a misguided attempt to self-medicate their emotional distress.
The Impact of Loneliness
Humans are social creatures. Throughout history, members of our species had functioned most effectively when they were part of families, tribes, communities or other groups. That doesn’t mean that some people don’t prefer solitude, but it does suggest that being alone can have a negative impact on most people.
In a 2010 article in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, co-authors Louise C. Hawkley, Ph.D., and John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., noted that chronic loneliness can put a person at risk for myriad problems that can compromise their health, including diminished physical activity, poor sleep patterns and alcohol abuse.
“The ability to regulate one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior is critical to accomplish personal goals or to comply with social norms,” the authors wrote. “Feeling socially isolated impairs the capacity to self-regulate, and these effects are so automatic as to seem outside of awareness .”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided the following statistics about the prevalence and potential effects of loneliness :
- About 33% of adults age 45 and older told researchers that they feel lonely.
- Almost 25% of adults age 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated.
- Social isolation can significantly increase the likelihood that a person will die prematurely.
- Loneliness has been linked to higher rates of anxiety, depressive disorders and suicide.
Anxiety, depression, other mental health disorders, pervasive sadness and diminished hope for the future are also associated with alcohol use disorder. Regardless of which concern presents first, the combination can push a person into a downward spiral of despair and declining health.
The Effects of Alcohol Use
People use alcohol for many purposes, including as a means of enhancing pleasure or numbing pain.
When people use alcohol in an attempt to combat the sadness of isolation, they are usually trying to either lift their spirits or alleviate their distress (an activity that is known colloquially as “drowning your sorrows”).
However, regardless of why a person uses alcohol, the substance’s effects are the same:
- Immediate effects of alcohol use may include temporarily elevated mood, loss of inhibitions, impaired coordination and diminished cognitive functioning.
- People who use alcohol also have an increased risk for injuries and other types of harm due to slips, falls, and dangerous or reckless behaviors.
- Ongoing or chronic alcohol use can lead to a wide range of physical health problems, the onset or worsening of mental health concerns, the development of addiction, strained or ruined relationships, and a variety of additional negative outcomes.
In other words, using alcohol to fend off feelings of loneliness is a self-defeating behavior. Any slight improvement in mood will be fleeting, while the likelihood of significant damage remains and increases with every drink.
Clearly, alcohol is not the answer to holiday-related loneliness (or any other lonely times, for that matter). But there are several healthy ways to cope with and, ideally, overcome isolation.
Here are a few suggestions that can help:
- If you are geographically separated from your loved ones, take advantage of technology to set up a virtual get-together. Video chat programs or apps can connect you with friends and family members from almost anywhere in the world. A Zoom Thanksgiving might not be the same as having everyone gathered around the same table, but it will allow you to see, hear and speak with the people who mean the most to you.
- Volunteer to help others who are struggling. Homeless shelters, places of worship and many other community organizations typically host Thanksgiving gatherings for people who would otherwise be unable to enjoy the holiday. The ability to make someone else’s day better can have a tremendously positive effect on your own outlook on life. Plus, when you help out at an event like this, you will be in the company of many other compassionate and appreciative people.
- Face your feelings. Alcohol doesn’t eliminate any problems. The difficult emotions you were experiencing when you took that first drink will be there long after the effects of the drug have worn off. Instead of trying to run from your emotional pain, acknowledge its presence and understand that it does not have control over you. When you are present and mindful, you can view your challenges without judgment and begin to treat yourself with kindness.
Perhaps the most important advice is to talk to a professional if you’re in crisis.
For most people, neither occasional loneliness nor moderate alcohol use is particularly problematic. Temporary sadness because you can’t attend an event or spend time with loved ones is a normal reaction to a virtually unavoidable part of life.
But if you have become socially isolated, if your negative emotions have begun to undermine your ability to live a healthy and satisfying life, if you are using alcohol to cope with psychological distress or if you are unable to control the amount and frequency of your alcohol use, you should consult with a qualified mental health professional or contact a reputable mental health treatment center.
When you get the professional help you need to regain control of your behaviors and learn to manage difficult emotions in a healthy manner, you will truly have a reason to be thankful on Thanksgiving and every other day of the year.
1. Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2010, October). Loneliness matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals of Behavioral Medicine: A Publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3874845/.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 29). Loneliness and social isolation linked to serious health conditions. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html.
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Located in Tucson, Arizona, Sierra Tucson is the nation’s leading residential and outpatient treatment center for substance use disorders, trauma-related conditions, chronic pain, mood and anxiety disorders, and co-occurring concerns. We provide integrated, holistic care for adults age 18 and older of all genders, including specialized programs for military members, first responders, and healthcare workers. Sierra Tucson was ranked No. 1 in Newsweek’s list of Best Addiction Treatment Centers in Arizona for 2020.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
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Published on November 10, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 10, 2021
Published on AddictionHope.com