If you’re in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse, then you’re wondering how the novel coronavirus infection might affect you.

You’re right to wonder. The groups most vulnerable to COVID-19 are:

  • Older people
  • People with chronic health conditions

Substance use disorder (SUD) is a chronic physical and mental condition. If you have SUD and you’re older than 60, then your risk is even higher. 

The risk of severe infection isn’t the end of it. There are many other ways COVID-19 is affecting people with active SUD and people in recovery.

For instance, people in recovery could face:

  • Trouble accessing medication
  • Lack of social support
  • Health anxiety
  • Increased relapse risk
  • Being forced to postpone treatment

It’s going to be a challenging few weeks for people in recovery, but it won’t last forever. You can prepare yourself for change by learning how you’ll be affected.

Here’s how the coronavirus pandemic could impact you:

SUD Increases Risk of Severe COVID-19

Many people with SUD have lifelong health conditions that are a result of their substance use. These can include:

  • Heart disorders such as heart failure or chronic irregular heart rhythms
  • Inflammatory disorders such as Crohn’s disease or lupus
  • Respiratory disorders such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Vascular disorders such as hardened arteries or clotting disorders

Any of these disorders can increase your risk of severe COVID-19 by itself. They’re all immune disorders, despite affecting different systems. An immune system disorder impacts your body’s ability to fight off COVID-19.

People with SUD are much more likely to have immune disorders, possibly because drug use over stimulates the immune system.

Many people with SUD have multiple health disorders, which means even higher risk.

Plus, treatment for these disorders is often immunosuppressant medication. If you take a medication like Humira to treat Crohn’s disease or something similar, then your COVID-19 risk is higher.

Again, many people with SUD have coexisting immune system problems. Talk to your doctor about your medication to make sure it’s safe to continue taking during the pandemic. Never stop or change medication without asking your doctor.

Supply Chain Issues Could Slow Medication Access

If you’re using medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to manage your recovery, talk to your pharmacist or doctor right away.

In the United States, some MAT drugs require in-person appointments. You may need to come in for drug tests in exchange for a new prescription. In other cases, you’ll go in for injections that you can’t take at home.

Either way, you should be wondering how the pandemic affects your ability to get your medication.

Many MAT clinics are operating under different hours or switching to a drive-through. Others are changing their policies and letting some clients take medications home. This is different in every area, so make sure to call your MAT clinic to see if there’s any change.

Group Meetings Come to a Halt

If you’re part of a 12-Steps group, Narcotics Anonymous, or something similar, then you’ve probably noticed that your local meetings are canceled.

That’s because the government is discouraging gatherings of people until further notice.

The ban on gatherings is expected to last through the end of March. It’s likely to be extended by then, though.

That means people with SUD have to find new ways to find social support in recovery.

Some Al-Anon and Narc-Anon branches are scheduling video meetings remotely. This lets their members connect and share solidarity, but without the risk of transmitting the virus.

For areas that don’t have video meetings, people in recovery can turn to apps for support.

Some apps that are great for remote support include:

  • 7 Cups: This social support app calls itself “the world’s largest emotional support system.” It lets you connect with a volunteer listener any time of the day. They’ll hear you out and respond with compassion and no judgment.
  • Sober Grid: This social media app is exclusively for people in recovery, so you know you’re talking to people who are going through what you’ve gone through. It includes “Daily Quests” to improve your mood.
  • BetterHelp: This therapy app connects you with licensed therapists and social workers. Every therapist has specializations, so you can choose to work with someone who understands your history.

In addition to reaching out via apps, use your personal support system during this time. You can’t go to brunch with your friends if you’re socially distancing, but you can text them or call them.

News Media Causes Health Anxiety

Research shows that watching news media during a global crisis increases stress and anxiety.

This isn’t surprising at all, but it’s easy to underestimate the effect that watching the news has on your recovery.

woman hoarding toilet paper covid 19 coronavirus
A woman hoards toilet paper during the pandemic on March 12th, 2020. (Via Nik/Unsplash)

Specifically, news media increases a type of stress called health anxiety. This is an irrational focus on health to a point where it affects your ability to function.

You may feel depressed or anxious about the state of the world. For instance, you can’t stop thinking about the quarantine and whether your family members are safe enough.

It’s helpful to be aware of the situation, but it’s not helpful to stress about it constantly.

If you’re anxious about COVID-19 to the point where it’s affecting your quality of life, then it’s probably time to turn off the news media for the rest of the day.

Try limiting the amount of COVID-19 media that you consume, or the type. Some people find that reading media online lets them have more control over their viewing versus TV news. Others prefer to watch TV, but only for 20 minutes at a time or until it feels stressful.

It’s up to you to find the right balance—anything goes as long as you’re able to manage your anxiety levels.

Relapse is More Likely in Times of Stress

Through the years, history’s shown us that SUD statistics see a wave of relapses after a stressful situation. That’s true after a global crisis like a pandemic, as well as personal crises.

You can’t control a global pandemic, and it’s going to be stressful to some extent. There’s no way to eliminate that.

brain signals aud stress
People with alcohol use disorder (AUD) have significantly higher relapse rates when they’re stressed. (Via Yale News)

But what you can control is your response.

Social distancing is a great opportunity for people in recovery to practice 2 valuable skills:

  • Stress management
  • Distress tolerance

These skills are a cornerstone of dialectical behavior therapy, which is an evidence-based treatment for SUD. You can practice them by:

  • Working with a DBT therapist online (e.g. BetterHelp), or
  • Practicing mindfulness and meditation using an app like Headspace

DBT and mindfulness are both proven coping mechanisms for stress. This can help you get ahead of the increased relapse risk during the pandemic.

Postponing Treatment

Some treatment centers are asking clients to consider putting off treatment for a few weeks until social isolation ends. This is because COVID-19 can spread without the carrier having any symptoms.

Without an accessible test for COVID-19, there’s no way to know if you’re infecting people, even if you feel perfectly fine.

That means the safest course is to postpone treatment as long as it’s not an emergency. Addiction facilities are still asking patients to come in if they have an emergency.

In the meantime, the Federal Drug and Safety Administration (FDA) has approved an app for treating addiction remotely.

Pear reSet is a free mobile app that’s only available by prescription. It’s a medically tested, evidence-based therapy app that takes you through 12 weeks of addiction education, complete with homework and coping mechanisms.

As of March 2020, it’s available by prescription. There’s no cost to access the app; you only need a prescription from your primary care doctor.

Again, if you’re having an emergency, call 911 or your doctor. Routine treatment should be postponed right now, but if it’s urgent, it’s important to get help sooner rather than later.

People With SUDs Should Talk To Their Doctors about COVID-19

At the time of this writing, social distancing will last at least until the end of April.

During that time, people in recovery and people with active SUD should talk to their doctors. It’s important to have a plan to manage your condition while distancing.

This plan may include:

  • Actions to keep you safe from infection
  • Changes to your behavioral treatment plan, including clinic appointments and medication access
  • Recommendations for mental health during isolation, which can be a challenging time for recovery (after all, addiction is called the disease of isolation!)

Addiction recovery is harder during the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s not impossible.

Sources

  1. COVID-19 Outbreak Impacts People In Addiction Recovery (March 24, 2020)
  2. COVID-19 takes toll on those recovering from addiction (March 25, 2020)
  3. COVID-19 Resources (March 2020)
  4. Why COVID-19 is a Perfect Storm in the Addiction World (March 26, 2020)
  5. COVID-19 Resources (March 25, 2020)

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