We are living through unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the holidays are approaching, which can already be a difficult time for those recovering from addiction or struggling with substance abuse. Combining the daily coronavirus stress with the challenges the holidays can present seems like a recipe for disaster.
It is true that managing stress is a critical part of maintaining sobriety and health in recovery. It is true that stress can affect addiction and that the rate of substance abuse and relapse has been increasing during the pandemic. However, it is also true that you can develop ways to deal with your stress and stay on track in recovery, even during these uncertain times.
Keep in mind that whatever you are going through, you are not alone and hope is not lost! There are ways to handle coronavirus stress without returning to substance abuse.
How Does Stress Affect Addiction?
Stress is a natural part of life. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress as we know it was defined in 1936 as, “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” The body reacts physiologically to situations we find stressful, increasing the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This can cause effects like rapid heart-rate, headache, chest pain, muscle tension, anxiety, anger, fear, and a range of symptoms that feel out of our control.
Being under stress constantly can put people at risk for many diseases, including addiction. Stress can lead to changes in the reward circuits that cause people to seek foods and substances that make them feel temporarily better because of the dopamine response according to a 2013 study published in Biological Psychiatry that found stress as a common risk factor for addiction and relapse.
Chronic stress can also lead to something called “learned helplessness” when you feel unable to control your situation and start to feel that you are powerless in all aspects of life. People dealing with things outside of their control—unemployment, abuse, witnessing violence, or dealing with the loss of a loved one, or going through a break up or divorce may all experience a sense of helplessness. These traumas and the stress they produce can cause mental health issues like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other conditions that put people at greater risk for substance abuse and addiction.
This sense of helplessness and the effects of stress can make someone more attracted to the relief that substance use seems to offer temporarily, and they may feel powerless to change their behavior despite the consequences. Once a person builds tolerance and develops dependence on alcohol or drugs—both physically and emotionally—the withdrawal and urge to use will also become stressors that contribute to the overall stress that may have led them to use substances in the first place. Thus, the cycle of stress and addiction can seem hard to break.
Is Coronavirus Stress Leading to Increases in Substance Abuse?
The uncertainty of the pandemic, sickness and death of friends and loved ones, mass unemployment, high stress on the job for frontline workers, parenting struggles for remote school and work, increased isolation, and financial worries are all leading to increased stress and mental health issues.
A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in late June 2020, over 40% of adults in the U.S. had struggled with mental health or substance use, and 13% of those had recently started or increased their substance use. Another study by the Wall Street Journal found that deaths caused by opioid use have been increasing across the United States, a trend that had already started even before the pandemic but is getting worse.
Isolation and coronavirus stress are major factors contributing to the new and worsening addiction and substance abuse problems in the United States. People are having a harder time managing stress because no one can say when the pandemic will end, and there has been little relief provided for people struggling financially. On top of that, the lockdown measures and social distancing is caused many people to live in isolation without the ability to connect with their support networks or attend group recovery meetings or therapy sessions. Many people going through addiction treatment programs are doing virtual meetings and counseling for safety, and while having this contact is great, it is not the same as being in person.
All around the pandemic is making life tougher than ever for people struggling with addiction and substance abuse. That means it’s crucial to practice healthy stress reduction techniques and to find coping mechanisms that are compatible with the safety measures in place for the pandemic.
How to Help Coronavirus Stress
With so many things out of our control, the only thing you can control is how you manage your reaction to coronavirus stress. While that sounds simple, we know how challenging it can be to manage emotions that arise from stressors. If you are turning to alcohol or drug use to deal with coronavirus stress, or if you are recovering from addiction with the added struggle of the pandemic, there are coping mechanisms and practices you can turn to as an alternative to substance use. Keep in mind that these suggestions are not easy, but they are far better than falling into addiction!
Prioritize Your Health—Physical and Mental
This sounds obvious, but it is so important. Letting stress go unchecked can lower your immune function and put you at greater risk of getting sick and developing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Whatever your situation, put your needs first. If you need help, ask for it. If you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, try virtual counseling or reach out to a trusted friend or family member for support. If you are feeling run down and exhausted, take time to rest, eat healthy meals, and recoup. If finances are a factor, look for support from loved ones or find out if there are community resources you can access. Your number one job in this time is to make sure you are physically and mentally well—or at least as well as possible.
If you are able to get exercise or physical activity, do that regularly. Rather than going out to eat or ordering fast food, prepare healthier meals at home. Keep up with doctors’ appointments well as you can given the safety measures of your area. Attend group meetings or counseling virtually if you need to, or find an online forum for support. All these things can help you stay fit in body and mind.
Find Safe Ways to Connect
Isolation is a major source of stress. People are staying home and typical gathering places—offices, churches, schools, community centers, gyms, and public spaces—are closing for safety. Losing that daily contact can be a major stressor. While you may prefer to see people and connect in person, if that isn’t a possibility or doesn’t feel safe for you, find ways to connect that suit you. Schedule regular calls with friends and loved ones or set up socially distanced meet ups to stay in touch. Look for recovery meetings online or find counseling services you can do through a telehealth virtual platform. If you prefer chatting online, look for a forum or make a friend group chat you can turn to when you are feeling lonely or stressed. Head to a park or find an area where you can be around people at a safe distance to at least feel you are still part of the community rather than staying isolated and alone at home.
Make a Routine
Being at home more, especially if you are out of work, can turn the days into a monotonous blur. Even worse, it can start to make you feel like you lack a purpose or reason to get out of bed every day. Combat this feeling by making a routine. Set an alarm every day, get up, make breakfast, take a walk, shower, get dressed, call a friend, practice a hobby, exercise, find a way to volunteer online or safely in person, schedule a video chat with family or a sponsor—do whatever you want to do, but be sure that you give yourself a reason to get up and stay busy each day. It can be a slippery slope to feel like you have nothing to do and no purpose. Avoid falling into a rut by planning your routine and, at the very least, getting up and making the most of each day. You cannot control all the changes happening in the world around you, but you can introduce stability with a daily schedule that you get to plan.
Practice Relaxation Techniques Like It Is Medicine
Find relaxation techniques that work for you—meditation, yoga, prayer, exercise, being in nature, caring for a pet, cooking, cleaning—whatever helps you to relax, do it like it is your medicine you need to take each day. You may like the idea of meditating but soon you start making excuses. You sleep in instead, or you keep putting off exercise until later in the day then the next day and the next until you give up on it. Hold yourself accountable and look at your relaxation practice as a necessity that is as important as sleeping and eating. Managing stress is a daily practice. If you let your stress grow, like a fire, it will be harder to contain it later. Instead, set aside a portion of each day—even if it’s only fifteen or twenty minutes—to give yourself space to practice relaxing and letting go. Watch your breath, observe your thoughts, notice the emotions you are feeling, and be mindful of how those emotions are affecting your body and your thoughts. A small dose of this on a regular basis can really help you to deal with stressors in the long run.
Be Compassionate with Yourself
Extend compassion and kindness to yourself. If you stop doing your routine or you miss a few days or don’t do your relaxation practice—don’t beat yourself up over it. Forgive yourself and start again. It is just as important to let yourself off the hook when you need to as it is to do these practices in the first place. If you slip up and use alcohol or drugs, acknowledge that it happened and look at how you can move on from it. Don’t give up hope. Just because you slip up or have a bad day, week, or month doesn’t mean you can’t try again. Perseverance is a sign of strength—that doesn’t mean that you are perfect—it means that you keep trying no matter how many times you fall off. So forgive yourself, get up and keep moving forward!
Keep a List of the Reasons You Stay Sober
If you are in recovery or working towards it, what are the reasons you want to stay sober? Write your list and hang it somewhere. Leave yourself reminders of all the things you gain by avoiding alcohol and drugs, so that you are constantly thinking about those rewards. Rather than dwelling on what you’ve lost, focus on what you’ve gained in your journey to recovery. It is more important than ever to look for light in this time of darkness and uncertainty.
Wherever you are at in your journey to recovery, you have already come a long way to get there. Keep your eye on those personal reasons you have for getting or staying sober—to be a better parent, to enjoy time with your family, to get and hold down a job, to play the sport you love, to do the hobby you are passionate about, to keep healing from your past—use those reasons as motivation to stay on track no matter what life throws at you!