In his latest book, The Divine Dance, author Richard Rohr quotes a psychiatrist friend of his as attributing most non-physiologically based mental illness to being disconnected from intimate relationships. While he acknowledges biological and genetic underpinnings to the development of a mental disorder, in his view, “loneliness is what activates it.” Maia Szalavitz echoes this idea in her book on addiction titled Unbroken Brain where she points out that addicts in treatment programs that emphasize supportive, empathetic relationships where they are treated with respect and dignity have higher recovery rates than those in “tough love” programs based on more shame-based, punitive principles.
In his exploration of what causes some people to become addicts when exposed to drugs and other to remain recreational users, Johann Hari notes in his Ted Talk: “Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond, and when we're happy and healthy, we'll bond and connect with each other, but if you can't do that, because you're traumatized or isolated or beaten down by life, you will bond with something that will give you some sense of relief. Now, that might be gambling, that might be pornography, that might be cocaine, that might be cannabis, but you will bond and connect with something because that's our nature. That's what we want as human beings.”
Research consistently shows that people with strong ties to family, friends and community live longer and have better psychological, emotional and physical health than those who are isolated. They also report less depression and anxiety, a more positive self view and a greater sense of satisfaction with their life overall. Loneliness is not only a difficult experience emotionally, but often results in our making choices that negatively affect our psychological and physical health as well. We may turn to addictions like alcohol, drugs, pornography, and gambling to fill the emptiness we feel inside. Environmental stressors may pull the trigger on a pathway we are genetically pre-disposed to, like an eating disorder, that gives us the illusion of control and self-protection from rejection or other relational wounds.
Based on our early attachment experiences in childhood, when we are upset or frightened we either move towards or away from relationships for comfort. If our needs were consistently met in nurturing ways by attuned caregivers in infancy, we view the world as a generally trustworthy place and expect to find support when we seek solace from others. If we experienced neglect, abuse, or mis-attuned responses such as being ignored when upset or stimulated when fatigued and in need of rest, we learn that relationships are not a source of safety but of confusion or harm. Our needs may be invalidated or negated in ways that leave us unsure of the accuracy or importance of our own feelings, wants and perceptions. We become filled with shame, self doubt, and insecurity and seek ways to soothe and regulate our emotional distress since co-regulation with caregivers is not a reliable option.
Children have limited resources to turn to for coping measures. Often food is one of the options available and rather than our eating being regulated by hunger and fullness, we start using food to change our emotional states. Restricting can lead to a sense of euphoria and power. Bingeing can lull our senses into a state of numbness and help us detach from painful feelings of shame or fear. Instead of responding to physical cues of appetite and satiety, we eat (or don’t) in response to emotional cues. Again, moving towards safe relationships can be a powerful interruption to these established emotional eating habits. Having a positive relational exchange releases oxytocin, known as “the cuddle hormone.” Oxytocin has been shown to regulate appetite, decrease hunger and increase positive feelings of well being. This release has even been documented in humans who spend time with animals. Petting a dog or cat can lower heart rate and blood pressure and release chemicals in the blood stream like oxytocin that decrease our craving for food and interrupt the emotional eating pathway.
Likewise, reaching out to a friend for support instead of reaching for that bag of chips or carton of ice cream can fill the void in a way that food never will. This involves risk. Food does not reject, criticize or ignore us. It is generally available and delivers consistent taste, texture, and “results” in terms of the sedating or numbing effect we are seeking in that painful moment. A friend may not respond, or respond in a way that feels unhelpful, which only adds to our distress. Building a strong network of supportive, caring relationships requires an investment of time and energy and a willingness to experience relational wounds and repairs on an ongoing basis. Having this network, however, will increase the chances of a positive response to our bid for support and decrease our dependence on ultimately self-destructive and unsatisfying coping methods that only temporarily distract from our pain, rather than becoming a source of healing and recovery.
Healthy relationships are an important part of building resilience to life’s stressors as well as for recovery from addictions, disorders and trauma. Experiencing a strong therapeutic alliance with a qualified therapist can help someone learn how to have secure attachments and create connected, attuned relationships outside of the therapy office. Equine assisted therapy focuses on building this connection with a horse and then transferring the principles to human relationships with greater confidence of success. If you feel isolated or stuck in unhealthy relationship patterns, there are resources available to help!