Can Human Connection Heal Addiction?

Posted on February 9, 2017 by Elizabeth Moyer

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” – Johann Hari

This quote may sound familiar. Johann Hari has become well-known for his TED talk, “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong,” which has over six million views. In the 15-minute talk, Hari details his three-year journey learning about the war on drugs and the nature of addiction. His research proved to be surprising.

Hari’s TED talk and book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, challenge traditional, widespread theories about addiction. In contrast to traditional medical or moral models, the social connection theory looks to the human design for relationship and emotional connection to help explain addiction. The theory has gained considerable traction over the years, particularly with the work of psychologist Bruce Alexander. Alexander’s famous “Rat Park” study helped uncover the role of environment and companionship in addiction.

What Rats Tell Us About Addiction

In experiments popular in the 1980s, rats that were left in a small cage with regular water and drug-infused water repeatedly returned to the drug infused water, eventually overdosed, and died.

In a cage left with nothing else to do but drink drugged water, no wonder the rats became addicted.

Alexander challenged these experiments by placing rats in an environment where all their needs were met – food, entertainment, and company with other rats. With the option to drink drug-infused water or regular water, the rats consumed less than a quarter of drug-infused water than the isolated rats did. None of them died. Later, Alexander also placed drug addicted rats in the park, who eventually decreased their drug intake and resumed a normal life.

The Rat Park study has spurred mountains of subsequent research and discourse on the power of environment and social connection, or the lack thereof, in the global addiction crisis. Rats are often used in drug-related experiments because they mimic human behavior in a number of ways with needs for food, exercise, sex, and companionship. Rats are social beings, like humans. What rats lack is a need for emotional human connection.

The Need for Connection

Two prominent speakers in the area of addiction, Dr. Peter Cohen and Dr. Gabor Mate, support Alexander’s findings, speaking to the powerful role of trauma and emptiness in driving individuals to numb pain with substances. They look to the deficit of relationship and connection in explaining what drives people to become addicted to drugs or something else.

Cohen talks about the human’s emotional need to bond. Humans are created for relationship, to relate to and bond with other people on a meaningful, deep level. The failure, breakdown, or rupture of those connections — those relationships — results in pain. Without bonding and connecting with others, we seek other substances, habits, or actions to fill that need for connection. Cohen and Mate posit that addiction is a harmful attempt to fill that need for connection. Mate asserts that addiction begins and ends with pain — pain that, in most cases, is founded in trauma or emotional loss. In an effort to numb the pain, we numb the ability to feel, whether good or bad, pain or joy.

The answer to our pain isn’t always drugs or alcohol. Sometimes it’s power, wealth, work, shopping, gambling, or food. In a society that encourages consumption, immediate gratification, and instant satisfaction, we’re driven to consume rather than connect. We live in a world where connection increasingly happens behind a screen rather than face to face. We live in a society of “busy” that prohibits relationship and celebrates activity. Pursuing relational wealth rather than monetary or material wealth is becoming increasingly counter-cultural.

Mate, Cohen, Hari, and Alexander might say in every addict’s past is pain, trauma, or a substantial lack of emotional connection. Hari concludes his TED talk by challenging a culture that historically ostracizes addicts to instead love them more deeply — to begin to restore genuine human connection.

In efforts to find the most effective solutions to alleviating poverty, addressing addiction and trauma is many times critical to helping an individual break the cycle of poverty. The answer is never simple, straightforward, or easy. For every person entrenched in poverty, the solution should be specific, holistic, and empowering. When it includes addiction and trauma, emotional health and connection is rarely the only solution, but it is a key component of successful programs.

Finding Hope and Healing on a Mountaintop

Scott Strode has been sober for twenty years. Drinking his first beer at age 11 and snorting cocaine for the first time at 15, he used alcohol and drugs for over a decade. After 24 hours straight of using cocaine, left on a bathroom floor, Strode decided to make a change.

In Strode’s pursuit of sobriety, he found connection with others through physical activity. He started climbing and biking, finding healing and hope on a mountain top. Strode later founded a nonprofit, Phoenix Multisport, that provides a sober active community for people seeking to live a sober life.

Strode speaks from experience in a recent powerful TEDx talk about sobriety. He alludes to the same power of social connection that Hari, Cohen, and Mate speak of in their research. Strode also identifies the importance of addressing trauma when dealing with addiction, naming trauma as the #1 public health crisis facing the country.

“We can’t talk about healing from addiction unless we talk about healing from trauma.”

Strode isn’t just talking about the severe trauma of sexual violence or war crimes. He’s talking about the small traumas of emotional abandonment, shame, relational upheaval, childhood instability and abuse, that when compiled, leave deep scars and feelings of isolation. With either severe trauma or the accumulation of these small traumas that slowly erode trust in safe relationships, one becomes isolated from meaningful connection that we are created to experience. Strode’s 13-minute narrative echoes the need for emotional bonding to soothe the pain of those traumas. The problem is, more often than not, we look to something external to medicate the pain.

That’s why Phoenix Multisport creates a community where people feel like they belong, rather than stand out. Phoenix Multisport taps into the human heart’s deepest longing, replacing harmful substances with meaningful connection. Exercise and activity promote physical health, while community fosters mental and emotional health. Phoenix Multisport has impacted the lives of over 19,000 individuals. Their model has helped change lives and entire families by bringing hope, healing, and restoration to relationships. Finding a safe environment for connection with others is critical on the journey to health for those seeking sobriety.

Stand Together is partnering with Phoenix Multisport to expand its programming in New England and explore expansion in new communities. If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, let us know.