If you or someone you love has experienced addiction, then you know that the disorder is about far more than the substance itself. Addiction is a deeply complex, dynamic, and multifaceted disease. No two people will experience–or overcome–in exactly the same way.
Even though the road to recovery is unique for everyone, there is a common denominator, and that is the vital role that a healthy lifestyle plays in helping you to maintain your sobriety. The cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle is the cultivation of healthy relationships. No one can walk the path of sobriety alone and staying the course often means choosing friends wisely and carefully constructing and maintaining a nurturing network of loved ones.
The Connection Between Relationships and Addiction
People rarely turn to drugs or alcohol just because they like the taste of the drink or the feeling of the narcotic. To be sure, that may be a part of the allure, but, for many people battling addiction, the motives for using are far more mixed, and far more complex. A lot of people turn to addictive substances because they are either running from something or because they are trying to mask something. This could be anything from an anxiety, depressive, or trauma disorder to dysfunction within the person’s home or social environment (1, 2).
Indeed, the connections between addiction and personal relationships have perhaps never been more apparent than in this COVID era. There is mounting evidence to show that the loss of interpersonal connections in this time of social distancing has contributed to a significant increase in substance abuse.
For instance, in a study of the drinking behaviors of college students, researchers found that students were drinking more, and more often, following the lockdown of their campuses–and that this trend only worsened with time (3). In another study, researchers found a global surge in mental health distress in the face of the pandemic and an associated uptick in the use of alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. The study found that in the face of prolonged social isolation and fears of the virus and its economic and health effects, 53% of Americans reported that COVID-related mental distress had led to new or worsening addictions, ranging from alcohol and drug abuse to overeating to gambling and internet addictions (4).
While the COVID era provides an unexpected, and unasked-for, case study of the link between relationships and addiction, this is by no means a connection that begins and ends with the pandemic. If you have experienced addiction, then you are already well acquainted with the impact that the people around you can have on your sobriety.
The Darker Side
We humans are social creatures. We need other people. So strong is this need, in fact, that loneliness has been found to be as dangerous to one’s physical health as chronic, daily smoking. Lonely people not only have a shorter life expectancy, but they also have more frequent and more severe physical and mental illnesses (5).
Not all relationships are created equal, however. As we’ve seen, depression, anxiety, trauma, and even stress, have been shown to link strongly with addictive behaviors. When you’re experiencing mental distress, you will do what you can to cope. That being said, if there is dysfunction in your home or turmoil in your relationships, then you’re certainly going to be feeling the negative emotions that may induce or worsen an addiction (6).
The connection between negative relationships and addiction is so strong that it can even be seen in very young children! According to one study, for instance, youngsters in homes where there is economic distress in the household, or dysfunction within the family, are at much higher risk of obesity due to the tendency to self-medicate with junk food (7).
In addition to the emotional impact, your relationships also influence the kind of environment you occupy. And that can mean that being around certain people also involves being around the environmental cues that trigger your addiction (8). This is why, for instance, recovery addicts who have been incarcerated are more likely to relapse after their release from prison and their return to high-exposure environments and those people and places where they used to use (9). For you, the environmental triggers could be something as mild as a spouse or best friend who has a drink every single night, or more serious through a group of friends who always indulge in risky behaviors and heavy drug use.
The Bright Side
The connection between relationships and addiction is by no means entirely negative. In fact, healthy relationships can be pivotal to your sobriety. And it’s not all that difficult to understand why. To be sure, you cannot get clean, and stay clean, unless you want it for yourself, unless you have reached the point of acknowledging, really acknowledging, that you deserve a healthy, happy, and addiction-free life.
But part of that process also means embracing the positive relationships in your life, and using those relationships to motivate you through the most difficult periods of your recovery (10). Sometimes, after all, when you can’t seem to find the motivation to endure within yourself, you can locate it in the people you love most and in the thought of the kind of life you want to experience with them.
That doesn’t just apply to family members. Studies show that belonging to supportive communities, including self-help groups, religious communities, and cultural organizations can support recovery (11, 12). One study found that older adults who had experienced addiction and were currently residing in supportive living facilities were more likely to maintain their sobriety when they began to engage in processes of “life prioritization,” which included the cultivation of strong social networks and the restoration of important family and friend relationships (13).
There is also strong evidence to support the idea that belonging to service-oriented and/or faith-based groups can help people maintain their sobriety. Belonging to service organizations can help foster self-esteem, self-efficacy, gratitude, and love (both the love for others and of being loved by others), and those are powerful weapons when you are battling the temptation to relapse (14, 15).
Similarly, belonging to a faith community helps those in recovery cultivate a sense of divine love, of being cared for and protected by a higher power, even as it promotes a sense of connection not just with other members of the community, but with the entire human family (14). That makes it awfully hard to feel alone and unloved as you walk the path of recovery.
There are also important pragmatic benefits to pursuing healthy relationships as an aspect of your recovery. On a practical level, if you’re sober, you’re going to live a different lifestyle and develop a different (non-addicted) identity (15). Addiction is a disease that thrives in silence and secrecy, so cultivating a healthy lifestyle that requires transparency and accountability is key. Allowing trusted loved ones to play a role in your recovery, including helping you to create an environment free of addiction cues and triggers, is a key aspect of long-term recovery. Likewise, building healthy lifestyle patterns that involve consistent social interactions, such as a nightly walk or a bi-weekly game of tennis with your bestie, can keep you focused, engaged, and accountable
How Bayshore Can Help
At Bayshore, our goal is to help you build the life you want and deserve. That means that our focus is on the person, not the disease. Our recovery plans involve a holistic and personalized approach that emphasizes a healthy lifestyle, not only physical, but also relational, emotional, and spiritual. You’ll have access to our in-house team of addiction recovery and mental health experts, who can equip you with the tools you need to build–and rebuild–the healthy relationships that are so vital to your long-term sobriety.
Healthy relationships aren’t just a luxury in human life, they’re a necessity. This is especially true for those battling addiction. Cultivating healthy relationships and eliminating toxic ones will help you find the motivation you need to abstain. Best of all, these relationships will help you build the healthy, happy, and sober lifestyle you want and deserve. At Bayshore, we can help you develop the tools you need to reconnect with those you love and need most.