Chemical Coping in COVID: How Stress, Isolation & Restrictions Create a Recipe for Addiction
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes, disruptions and stress into the daily lives of almost every American. Efforts taken to protect our physical health are necessary, but can also endanger our mental health. Increased stress, social isolation, and lack of access to outlets, activities and resources within the community create a recipe for stress, psychological issues and social problems. Early research has shown alarming spikes in anxiety, depression, suicide, certain types of crime and problem drug and alcohol use.
There are several factors placing Americans at a much higher risk for drug and alcohol addictions during COVID-19, including:
1. Social Isolation
The shutdowns, quarantines, and public health advisories have led more people to stay home and to restrict any non-essential contact with people. We are all dependent on social connections and contact and without it, our physical and mental health can rapidly decline. There is already evidence of these declines from early research conducted on the effects of COVID-19 and resulting isolation on physical and mental health (3).
People who are lonelier are more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, chronic health problems, even if they never had these conditions before. These issues all indirectly increase the risk for addiction, but social isolation and loneliness are also directly correlated with increased rates of drug and alcohol addiction (3, 4). Also, studies have shown that people who drink alcohol alone are much more likely to develop an alcohol problem than those who drink socially, and this probably holds true for other drugs as well (5).
2. Increased Anxiety & Stress
The number of Americans who report having anxiety has tripled compared to figures collected last year, and this is believed to directly correlate to the COVID-19 pandemic. These numbers help us understand that people who have never struggled with anxiety before are experiencing it now. Because many have not experienced anxiety before, they have likely not developed an effective skillset to cope in healthy ways, making them more likely to turn to unhealthy outlets like drugs or alcohol.
Stress is also a known risk factor for problem drug and alcohol use (5). Studies have shown that people who use drugs or alcohol to cope with stress or other difficult emotions are much more likely to develop a problem than social or recreational users (Creswell). Many Americans are experiencing higher levels of stress due to fears of contracting COVID-19, unemployment, loss of work/life balance, children attending virtual school, along with a number of other stress factors. Increased stress and anxiety are known to impair executive functioning, or higher level thinking skills that help people make good decisions and control impulses.
3. Restricted Access to Healthy Outlets
In addition to having overall higher levels of stress, people are also struggling with not having access to the outlets and activities that normally help them relieve stress. These could include exercising at a gym, going out with friends or other social and recreational activities. Increased stress and decreased access to healthy outlets can drive people towards unhealthy and destructive methods of coping, including drugs and alcohol.
Restricted access to these outlets is especially difficult for people because many people have been under these restrictions for several months. While people are normally equipped to deal with high stress for short periods of time, chronic stress directly impacts physical and mental health (Kato). Without outlets to help relieve stress, many people are experiencing chronic stress and some of the more toxic effects.
4. Job Insecurity and Work/Life Imbalance
Many people are experiencing increased stress related to losing their job, being afraid of losing their job or having to adapt to working from home. All of these scenarios can disrupt work/life balance, making it difficult to partition off stress arising from work and keep it from interrupting the rest of a person’s life. Work/life boundaries are increasingly difficult to maintain as people adapt to working out of their bedrooms, living rooms, or dividing their attention between their work and parenting and teaching their children. Still, these challenges pale in comparison to those of the growing number of Americans who are unemployed.
Unemployment is directly correlated with higher levels of drug and alcohol addiction, as well as to a number of other physical and mental health conditions that also increase the risk of addiction (2). Job insecurity can have similar psychological effects as unemployment because a person lives in anticipation and fear of losing their job. This heightened anxiety is often also made more intense by the fact that the job market is more unstable and finding a new job would be more challenging than normal. Unemployment, underemployment and job insecurity are especially stressful because these are the incomes most Americans count on for food, housing, and meeting the basic needs of themselves and their families.
5. Less Stimulation and Excitement
Another increasingly common complaint among Americans is that they are struggling with the monotony of their daily routine which can feel reminiscent of the movie Groundhog Day. Day after day, many people have become sucked into specific routines that don’t seem to change. They may eat the same things, see the same people, and do the same tasks. While some people like this amount of structure and routine, most people rely on variation. In fact, variation in routines and activities stimulates the release of the brain chemical dopamine, which is closely involved in the formation of addictions (1).
When people aren’t seeing different people and places and doing different things, they may not be getting the same amount of dopamine as they are used to. Dopamine is often called the “pleasure chemical” because it is known to stimulate positive emotions and sensations and coincidentally, is also the brain chemical most responsible for the “high” drug users experience. It’s easy to see how people who are stuck in monotonous routines, lacking stimulation and excitement, and deficient in dopamine could be more enticed by the pull of drugs that will correct these deficiencies and provide temporary stimulation and excitement even if it is artificial.
Guarding Against Addiction
While the most failproof way to guard against addiction is to completely avoid the use of drugs and alcohol, this may not be a realistic or necessary goal for everyone. In many cases, people without a history of drug or alcohol problems can take precautionary measures to help guard against addiction, including:
- Be more aware and vigilant of how often and how much you are using drugs or alcohol.
- Set guidelines and limits on how often and how much you are using drugs or alcohol.
- Find new ways to be active and social, as these help relieve stress and prevent addiction.
- Make good use of your time by being productive and working towards important goals.
- Avoid using drugs or alcohol as a method of coping with stress, boredom, loneliness or other difficult emotions.
If you are concerned about your use of drugs or alcohol or have a history of addiction, seeking professional help from an addiction counselor or an outpatient or inpatient rehab center is the best course of action. Addictive disorders are treatable and people who seek treatment have higher rates of success than those who try to get clean and sober on their own. Taking action sooner rather than later can help prevent the progression of your addiction and protect against the destructive effects it can have on you, your life and relationships.
- Costa, V. D., Tran, V. L., Turchi, J., & Averbeck, B. B. (2014). Dopamine modulates novelty seeking behavior during decision making. Behavioral neuroscience, 128(5), 556.
- Henkel, D. (2011). Unemployment and substance use: a review of the literature (1990-2010). Current drug abuse reviews, 4(1), 4-27.
- Kato, T. A., Sartorius, N., & Shinfuku, N. (2020). Forced social isolation due to COVID-19 and consequent mental health problems: Lessons from hikikomori. Psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, 10.1111/pcn.13112. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/pcn.13112
- Leigh-Hunt, N., Bagguley, D., Bash, K., Turner, V., Turnbull, S., Valtorta, N., & Caan, W. (2017). An overview of systematic reviews on the public health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. Public health, 152, 157-171.
- Creswell, K. G., Chung, T., Wright, A. G., Clark, D. B., Black, J. J., & Martin, C. S. (2015). Personality, negative affect coping, and drinking alone: a structural equation modeling approach to examine correlates of adolescent solitary drinking. Addiction, 110(5), 775-783.
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