It’s fair to say we’ve all been struggling to some extent with the negative impacts COVID-19 has made in our lives. Anecdotally, it would seem that social distancing, disrupted routines, cancelled life milestones, and ongoing financial uncertainty is taking a big toll on each of us. It’s too early to know the exact impacts COVID-19 will have on our collective psychological wellbeing in the United States, but early indicators suggest that the virus is waging an all-out war, not just on our respiratory health, but on our mental health, as well.
Today, we’ll examine exactly why emergencies like COVID-19 tend to cause significant upticks in Substance Use Disorder. We’ll also consider what you can do to reduce your risk factors for addiction during the pandemic.
Toxic Stress is Inevitable During COVID
Graduation is cancelled.
Your hours at work are reduced.
You lose your childcare.
The gym is closed.
With each of these unwelcome intrusions into our day-to-day lives comes a natural stress response. Our bodies produce stress hormones designed to rise to the challenge of external threats and protect us from harm whenever we detect changes to our “normal” or “safe” environment.
Even positive changes—like getting promoted at work—can trigger a stress response.
By itself, our stress response is not a bad thing. It evolved naturally to help keep us alive when faced with life-threatening situations. It’s what prompts our “fight or flight” response.
But when our stress response is triggered again and again—or even indefinitely—our bodies are flooded with too much stress hormone, leading to an imbalance. Chronic stress disrupts our sleep, our digestion, our cognition, and our relationships. It’s literally bad for our health.
Healthy—and Unhealthy—Ways of Dealing With Stress
Our stress response is uncomfortable because it is designed to make us want to do something—fight or flee—in order to end the response. Our fight or flight response is designed to combat physical, concrete dangers like a lion attack but it’s particularly ill-suited to amorphous, on-going threats like viruses or looming layoffs. With nothing to fight or flee from, our stress response is prolonged without a tidy resolution.
When we can’t escape or defeat threats, we go looking for other ways out of our stress response. Drugs and alcohol are an easy way to make the stress response stop—at least temporarily.
COVID: A National Relapse Trigger
The New York Times recently labelled COVID-19 a “national relapse trigger” because of the high level of stress the virus is causing in all of our lives.
A recent study in Florida showed that since the beginning of the pandemic, 57% of people polled admitted to an increase in their personal substance use. People ages 35 to 44 reported the highest increase in their substance use in response to COVID-19. The most-used substance in the study was alcohol.
For those with a history of SUD, the current epidemiological climate can be life-threatening. Social distancing means isolation from peer groups and community gatherings that help support a sober lifestyle.
Previous Emergencies Demonstrate that the Worst is Yet to Come
In speculating about the future effects of COVID-19 on the nation’s mental health, it can be helpful to examine our response to previous national emergencies. Scientists are still studying the mental health fall-out from Hurricane Katrina but they have found that the storm’s impact on public health followed a typical pattern.
As a national emergency first hits, our anxiety and stress response peaks quickly, prompting us to take swift, decisive action. This is when, during COVID-19, we saw panic-buying and toilet paper stockpiling.
As the emergency continues, we see a short-lived coming together of a community, where we imagine ourselves as heroes in an epic battle against a common foe. During the COVID-19 crisis, we saw this phase exemplified by the outpouring of support for our nurses and medical professionals, and community-minded efforts such as mask-making drives.
When it becomes clear that the “common foe” will not be easily—or quickly—defeated by a singular community effort, a creeping kind of despair sets in. Our stress response is still elevated and everything we have done up until now has not made it go away. We are running out of ideas for making it stop. We begin to understand that this state may be our “new normal.” This is the phase we are currently experiencing in the COVID-19 pandemic and it is the most dangerous phase from an addiction prevention perspective. This is when the substance use we may have been employing to address our stress responses in the previous phases is most likely to become problematic.
We’re Here to Help
If you or a loved one is engaging in problematic substance use in response to COVID-19, we’re here to help. At Shanti Recovery and Wellness, we help Portlanders get clean and sober every day using only the best, most evidence-based treatment methods available. Our clinic is available for in-person and telemedicine visits. Reach out and schedule your intake appointment today.