Dealing With Substance Abuse During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted society’s concept of “normal,” forcing a new normal that involves social distancing, self-isolation, and face masks. The interruption of routines has caused many people to feel isolated, stressed, and uncertain.

Although this is a difficult time for everyone, the pandemic can be especially difficult for people struggling with substance abuse. Since some rehabilitation centers are closed due to social distancing, some people have no choice but to deal with the situation at home, which can make their situation more challenging.

How Does COVID-19 Affect People with Substance Abuse Disorder?

The current pandemic can affect a person physically, mentally, and emotionally in one (or more) of the following ways:

Stress Response

The body physically reacts to stressful situations. The heart races, pupils dilate, muscles tense and the blood pressure rises. There is also a chemical reaction in the brain that triggers cravings during stress. The more stressed an individual is, the higher the intensity of their cravings.

Each person has a coping mechanism to deal with stress. Some people cope by eating or exercising. For people struggling with substance abuse, they are more prone to turn to their comfort coping mechanisms of drugs or alcohol. If they use these substances to cope with their stress, they are more prone to fall back on those behaviors.

Immune System Response

Most substances impact a person’s immune system by decreasing the body’s natural defense system against viruses and pathogens. COVID-19, a respiratory disease, often attacks the lungs. Smoking marijuana, meth, or tobacco increases lung inflammation, as well as an individual’s risk for severe COVID-19 complications.

People with a substance use disorder are advised to get in touch with their healthcare providers in case they develop symptoms of COVID-19 symptoms, such as a cough, sore throat, fever, difficulty in breathing, and/or a runny nose.

Changes in Routine

Routines provide a comfort zone for many people, particularly for those who struggle with substance abuse. They also encourage healthy habits and lower stress levels. Structures are helpful for people in recovery, especially during the earlier days of their recovery process.

Changes in routine due to the COVID-19 pandemic put people at higher risk for cravings since their coping strategies have been disrupted. They need to develop new strategies or routines to continue their journeys of recovery.

Feelings of Isolation.

To reduce the transmission of COVID-19, many state governments have implemented stay-at-home orders. These measures help minimize the spread of the virus, but they can cause feelings of isolation. Prolonged periods of isolation are unhealthy for some people, but individuals struggling with substance abuse can struggle more in isolation.

It’s easier for people to manage their substance abuse concerns when they are engaged in spontaneous social activities, such as meeting with friends for a meal. For now, the pandemic has changed social interactions. While virtual options are available, not everyone is satisfied with the digital alternative.

When a person is in the earlier stages of their recovery from substance abuse, they need support from a community to maintain their recovery. COVID-19 poses a challenge due to the social distancing measures put out by the government.

How to Treat and Prevent Substance Abuse During COVID-19

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, know that support and help are still possible despite the changing world.

To cope with substance abuse, consider the following:

  • Use telehealth, when possible. Studies suggest that using telemedicine to provide treatment for substance abuse is an effective alternative to physical consultations. If the patient needs consultation immediately, schedule a telehealth session with your physician as soon as possible.
  • Take advantage of online support. The pandemic is a vulnerable time for everyone. In the absence of face-to-face sessions and recovery meetings, therapists and psychologists encourage patients to seek support online. For example, most Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous programs have moved online. Connections, an evidence-based app, can also connect patients to support groups and counselors.
  • Encourage harm-reduction practices. Find ways to avoid the additional risks presented by COVID-19. A person struggling with substance abuse should never be alone. To balance the need for social distancing with the need for socialization, patients should use video conferencing platforms to make sure their loved ones are checking on them.
  • Encourage new hobbies. Despite the limitations presented by COVID-19, there are still many ways to distract a patient or yourself from using substances. Learning a new hobby is one way to do so. Use the time to learn how to dance, to sing, to drive, or to use acrylic paint on fabric.

The pandemic may have added challenges to people struggling with substance abuse, but it doesn’t have to cause a relapse. Despite the social distancing and self-isolation measures set, you can still find a way to help yourself or a loved one.

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