Living through a global pandemic presents many challenges most of us have never faced. It’s natural to feel stressed and uncertain. The emotional strain caused by restrictions on social contact can be especially difficult if someone is isolated or feels pressure to provide for themselves, their family, and other loved ones during these extraordinary times. At the same time, social media is full of messages, memes, and jokes about using alcohol and other substances as accepted and expected coping mechanisms. For people in recovery or those who live with addiction, stressful times like these can lead to relapse or increases in substance use and misuse.
“Addiction thrives in isolation and dies in community — but this is a conundrum during the pandemic, because every day we’re being reminded to keep our distance and stop connecting in our usual ways,” said Brad Anderson, MD, chief of addiction medicine for Kaiser Permanente Northwest in Portland, Oregon. “Addiction is a daily disease, but many of the everyday interactions that people rely on when they’re struggling with substance use disorders have either fallen away or become much more challenging to navigate.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or other substances, it’s crucial that the current environment doesn’t prevent anyone from getting the support or treatment they need. “Many patients are weighing their fear of contracting COVID-19 against the benefits of getting treatment for substance abuse,” said Lauren Grawert, MD, addiction psychiatrist and chief of psychiatry for Kaiser Permanente in Northern Virginia. “But you don’t have to make a choice. At Kaiser Permanente, we’re offering all our services virtually, and there are other safe ways to get the help you need.”
Avoiding isolation is the best coping mechanism. Make a phone or video appointment to talk with your sponsor, counselor, or therapist; reach out to family and friends for support and connection; or find virtual group meetings to attend. “My patients have good feedback about virtual communities such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Sober Grid, and Sober Nation, which can link you with various kinds of virtual support,” said Dr. Grawert.
Follow the same routines that were helpful to you before COVID-19 or find replacements for activities that aren’t possible right now. Develop a consistent schedule you can follow every day. Find time to take a walk, do a virtual workout, cook your meals, or pursue a hobby that keeps you happy and engaged. “Don’t give up because it doesn’t feel familiar,” said Paul Bryant, director of addiction medicine, Kaiser Permanente Northwest. “Practicing self-care activities can actually help alleviate physical and emotional stress.”
If friends, family members, or trusted colleagues who care about you say they’re worried, pay attention. “Other people will often notice changes before you’re even aware you’re in danger,” explained Dr. Grawert. “Take their feedback seriously and let them help you. Accepting that kind of support can help prevent relapses and speed up recovery.”
If you notice that boredom or stress is leading to more thoughts about or cravings for alcohol or drugs, tell someone you trust, or reach out to your mental health provider. “If you’re actively using substances, this is the best time to get treatment,” said Dr. Grawert. “Don’t let shame, guilt, or anger hold you back. Addiction is a disease, and recovery is a process.” People will be there to help if you ask for it.
It’s important to understand everyone is dealing with the stress and anxiety of the current situation. “Find the things that work for you in this new reality, and if things aren’t working, don’t wait until the situation feels overwhelming,” said Bryant. “You don’t need to collapse and relapse. Treatment is effective.”
For Kaiser Permanente members, all our addiction care services are available, including our medication and detox services, which we’re providing with COVID-19 safety precautions in place. Our support groups, many of which are now virtual, are still going strong. Go to kp.org/mentalhealth to get connected to care.
Help is also available at SMART Recovery, and family and friends of those dealing with substance use disorders can access a number of resources through Al-Anon Family Groups.
For immediate help for a mental health crisis, including thoughts of suicide, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.