Well there is nothing like a global pandemic to totally upend someone’s recovery journey. That’s right, the COVID-19 crisis has managed to disrupt pretty much the whole recovery support landscape—at least for while it did. Thankfully, addiction experts were swift to respond to this unfolding health emergency, quickly instituting telehealth video conferencing where outpatient services and therapy could be administered. But still, the upheaval has led to numerous relapses among the recovery community.
For those individuals who didn’t suffer from the disease of addiction prior to the COVID-19 event, the harsh effects of the stay-at-home orders led to a mental health crisis. Serious anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts caused individuals to begin abusing drugs or alcohol in an effort to mitigate some of the discomforts associated with these mental health disorders.
In essence, COVID-19 and drug addiction were the perfect storm.
What makes this unique event in history so dangerous to people is not so much the virus itself, but the very real mental health consequences that the unending disruption in daily life is causing. Attempting to balance the dangers of contracting the virus—which can lead to serious health implications—with the mental health risks that come with social isolation and job loss has stumped even the brightest minds. It has posed a quandary unlike anything we have ever witnessed, and continues to now. This is why it is so important to understand the relationship between COVID-19 and drug addiction, so that relapse and emerging addiction can be controlled somewhat.
How are COVID-19 and Drug Addiction Interconnected?
Nothing has caused such widespread and systemic disruption as COVID-19. People have been trying to manage multiple stressors that did not even exist three months ago—trying to homeschool their children, work from home if lucky enough to still have a job, worrying about older relatives contracting the disease, or grieving the loss of loved ones who have succumbed. Simply mundane tasks like getting groceries are rife with stress, as we all try to protect ourselves from infection. For someone who is in recovery and vulnerable to relapse, or is beginning to lean on drugs to help manage the effects of all the stress, it is no wonder that the pandemic has caused a serious uptick in addiction-related crises.
Now compound those stressors with the impact of COVID-19 on mental wellbeing. Prolonged periods of isolation have led to some significant negative affects on mental health. Loneliness and boredom are two things to be avoided in recovery, yet the pandemic has left no option but for people to try to handle these conditions. Some individuals may become so disheartened as week after week go by that they succumb to their addiction or develop one.
What Happens if You Suffer From Both COVID-19 and Drug Addiction?
As the scientists attempt to understand what health conditions might put a person at a higher risk for COVID-19, it has been speculated that individuals that smoke, vape, or use opioids or methamphetamine may have compromised respiratory systems that make them more vulnerable to the effects of the virus.
But there are other factors that can increase the correlation between coronavirus and addiction. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis has led to record job losses, hitting about 50 million adult workers very hard. Historically, in times of economic hardship rates of drug and alcohol addiction increase. Someone who suffers from financial fallout and addiction, and then catches the coronavirus on top of that, may lose all hope. Despair can set in, which can have deadly results.
During this historic pandemic it is critical that all people receive the care they need. Someone with the virus may relapse and need to obtain medically assisted treatment to help them get back on the right track, but depending on the region and rates of the virus in a particular area, individuals in need of MAT may find that these drugs are not available.
The nation’s opioid crisis is not over. Although overdose deaths have leveled off over the past year or two, the problem is still serious in our country. COVID-19 just adds another layer to the tenuous state of drug addiction, and is very likely to cause a resurgence in opioid deaths as the year wears on. In fact, addiction expert Dr. Nora Volkow recently remarked, We had not yet been able to contain the epidemic of opioid fatalities, and then we were hit by this tsunami of COVID.”
How Anxiety Leads to Addiction or Relapse
When people feel insecure or that they are without power over their lives it creates anxiety. Most of us can muddle through setbacks and manage the anxiety that accompanies them. However, when the anxiety is chronic, without relief, it can result in someone deciding to access drugs or alcohol as a tool to help them reduce stress. As tolerance to the effects of the substance increases, consumption also goes up. Over time, this can result in a substance use disorder.
Similarly, for someone in addiction recovery, chronic stress is a significant risk to sobriety. Many of the support networks usually available for recovery care may have been shelved or disrupted during the early weeks of the virus outbreak, and that may have caused numerous relapses. Since April, however, rehabs have retooled their delivery of services by providing much needed addiction support and mental health interventions via telehealth virtual platforms. Still, the risk for relapse is high.
A study published in Alcohol Research titled “How Does Stress Lead to Risk of Alcohol Relapse?” [Rajita Sinha, Ph.D.] looks at this very issue. The author notes the long held understanding that stress will increase the risk of relapse, but digs deeper to observe how emotional and stress responses differ in individuals who are chemically dependent on alcohol. The study identifies unique alterations in the stress pathways of these individuals, which further emphasizes the connection between the ability to manage stress effectively and relapse.
Protecting Mental Health During the COVID-19 Crisis
One of the most important priorities during the pandemic is to learn how to manage anxiety. Anxiety can be crippling, and is a major trigger for relapse. We all are going to struggle on occasion as we feel the brunt of the virus on our lives. However, when mental health begins to seriously erode it is important to reach out for the professional help you need.
Some signs of deteriorating mental health include:
- Sleep disturbances such as nightmares, or insomnia
- Difficulty concentrating
- Persistent feelings of hopelessness and despair
- Sudden weight gain or loss
- Self-harming behaviors
- Racing heart rate
- Increase in somatic symptoms, such as headaches, stomachaches, diarrhea
- Extreme mood swings
- Loss of interest in daily life
- Isolating behaviors, disconnecting from friends and family
- Angry, violent behavior
- Experiencing delusions or hallucinations
- Suicidal thoughts, obsessed with death
To better manage the stress and worry of our times, try to include relaxation techniques in to your daily routine. There are yoga classes being livestreamed, meditation apps, and getting regular exercise is essential.
If anxiety continues to cause undue impairment or is leading to a relapse, it is imperative to access treatment services. Most addiction and dual diagnosis providers are offering telehealth video psychotherapy during COVID-19. If you or a loved one is experiencing the signs of mental distress during the pandemic, reach out to a treatment provider for immediate support.
Support Resources Available During the Dual Crisis of COVID-19 and Drug Addiction
What should one do if a relapse appears to be imminent? The most important thing is to act, versus trying to convince yourself that you are fine. The disease is sneaky and looks for the fissures, so doing nothing is just dangerous. Be proactive and get some professional help if you feel recovery is at risk.
During the coronavirus event there are avenues still available for accessing treatment. Residential rehabs are still accepting clients during the lockdown, and many outpatient rehabs have shifted over to telehealth platforms that provide online therapy and support. These video platforms can be extremely helpful for individuals in need of outpatient psychotherapy, in both individual and group formats. Clinicians can complete assessments through the telehealth technology, and then set up an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for the individual.
- Intensive Outpatient Programs. The intensive outpatient program (IOP) treatment option had to be modified during the coronavirus crisis. An IOP is an excellent outpatient treatment for individuals with a mild to moderate substance use or mental health disorder, or as a step down from a partial hospitalization program (PHP). Rehabs have developed virtual IOP programming that allows individuals who desire outpatient care to benefit from it. The online IOP involves a weekly number of hours that are devoted to therapy, classes, and meetings for about 12 weeks.
- Residential Treatment. Residential rehabs have continued to operate without interruption since the coronavirus emerged. These facilities were able to immediately conform to the guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control to ensure patient safety. Measures such as multiple daily cleanings and sterilization of shared spaces, providing personal protective equipment, social distancing at mealtime and during group sessions, and limiting or preventing visitors has enabled the residential treatment centers to provide much needed help.
Treatment includes a full schedule of therapy sessions, group work, psychosocial education, recovery meetings, and recreation.
- Dual Diagnosis Treatment. With the high rate of both addiction and mental health issues coexisting right now, it is important to have both of these disorders treated at the same time. A residential dual diagnosis program will be equipped to diagnose, treat, and manage the co-occurring psychiatric issue. Treatment includes medication, psychotherapy, psychosocial skills, holistic therapies, and recovery meetings.
- Online A.A./N.A. Meetings. Fortunately, online A.A. meetings, free for those who utilize them, are available now using Zoom Internet technology. Primarily built to serve the corporate environment for hosting remote meetings or conferences, Zoom provides the perfect format to host online A.A. meetings. Now, those in recovery who desire some interfacing with a recovery community can do that without even getting into a car. While online A.A. meetings have been around for a while now, during the pandemic the Zoom platform is making them available far and wide.
Whether for substance use disorder newly acquired during the coronavirus crisis or for a recent relapse there are recovery resources available.
What is on the Other Side of COVID-19?
The most challenging aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is the uncertain nature of it. No one knows just how long it will last or how extensive the coronavirus’ impact will be on society. The entire world is in the same state of uncertainty, basically learning as we go along and cross each hurdle that is encountered.
Drug addiction continues to present additional societal difficulties. Opioid deaths, such as from heroin and fentanyl, continue to happen on a daily basis. Additionally, a significant uptick in deaths due to methamphetamine and cocaine are adding to the fallout. There is no doubt that the health crisis the world is dealing with is like throwing gasoline on a fire for individuals in recovery.
As always, a commitment to sobriety combined with a strong support system and comprehensive treatment is the winning strategy to help individuals who are ready to change the trajectory and get their lives back. Even though it may feel like the COVID-19 event will never end, just keep reminding yourself that this too shall pass.
Next Level Recovery Offers Online Outpatient Services and Residential Treatment During the Pandemic
Next Level Recovery is a comprehensive addiction recovery program that offers treatment for individuals during the COVID-19 event. Next Level Recovery provides medical detox services, online outpatient rehab, residential treatment, and sober living housing. All safety measures are closely adhered to for the protection of both patients and staff members. For more information about this COVID-19 and drug addiction, please call us today at (888) 759-5846.