COVID-19 and Addiction: How the Virus Has Affected Substance Use


The United States has been gravely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, there are currently 265,166 deaths and a total of 13,142,997 cases throughout the country. The virus has decimated the world, but the U.S. has been affected more than others because of its size. Unfortunately, it has led to mass lockdowns nationwide to curb the spread of COVID, but how is this affecting those in recovery? We know that peer support is a vital step for sobriety, and without the option to attend meetings, the COVID-19 virus is affecting everyone differently.

COVID-19 and addiction is a topic that isn’t getting enough coverage, and some of us may wonder how the virus has affected substance use. While lockdowns have been vital to saving lives, those battling addictions have faced new battles. Unfortunately, in some cases, these have been insurmountable. According to the Associated Press, alcohol sales increased 55 percent in the last week of March, compared to the previous year, pointing to a startling trend.

Another study released by the Well Being Trust and the American Academy of Family Physicians estimates that 150,000 additional deaths of despair attached to alcohol, drugs, and suicide will occur due to COVID-19 moving forward. These unprecedented effects will continue to cause ripples for years to come. Those losing jobs may turn to alcohol or drugs to numb their pain, and those stuck in their house may feel isolated and might use substances to escape their reality. 

Those who successfully complete addiction treatment will relapse at a rate of 40 to 60 percent in their first year of sobriety. These numbers may vary depending on the severity of the disorder. The first year of sobriety is the most crucial, and those who make it through that challenging period do so with support from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Experts caution that those in recovery are especially vulnerable to relapse during the COVID-19 pandemic without these options available. 

Addiction and Relapse During COVID-19

The most commonly reported risk factors for relapse include depression, stress, isolation, and even boredom. These experiences may push a person to self-medicate, and most of these risk factors have been typical experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since early March, social distancing has meant a reduction in connection, which is a core psychological need among humans. For those in recovery, camaraderie and strong support systems are especially important. In addition to these basic needs, social distancing has limited access to peer-support groups, medication, and other essential resources. 

As of April 2020, unemployment rates soared to unprecedented heights of 14.7 percent, according to Statista. These numbers remain well above ten percent today. While these numbers contribute to stress and financial worries, it can also disrupt routines and structure, which is crucial for those in recovery.

Jobs are also responsible for a window of time that makes it extremely difficult or impossible to abuse drugs or alcohol. Unlimited free time can have disastrous consequences for people recovering from addiction, and this is especially true when time is spent alone with unusually high levels of stress. 

Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As was mentioned above, stress and depression are two significant factors that influence relapse. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is causing a historic increase in mental health issues, and those with a history of substance use are at an elevated risk. 

Some of the following facts will shed light about alcohol and mental health:

  • Those who experience major depressive episodes are almost twice as likely to develop an alcohol addiction.
  • Most individuals in alcohol addiction treatment score high on the depression rating scale.
  • Those experiencing problems with alcohol have anxiety rates that are twice as high.
  • Alcohol processing in the body can permanently alter stress responses, leading to chronic stress. 

Relapse is a serious concern during COVID-19 and those struggling with addiction. The virus has affected substance use, and the increase in alcohol sales is just one piece of data that reflects the severity of the problem. Those who may not struggle with addiction might find themselves drinking more or experimenting with drugs because of poor mental health. In the next section, we’ll discuss ways to avoid relapse.


How to Avoid Relapse

While the future of the world may seem bleak, there are various ways those in recovery can do to protect themselves during this period. Here are some tips to prevent relapse during COVID-19.

Know Your Triggers

One of the most critical steps to steer clear of relapse is awareness – you must ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are my triggers?
  • What people, situations, or feelings make me want to drink alcohol or use drugs?

It’s impossible to control each aspect of your life, but understanding your triggers for relapse will help you avoid potentially risky situations and act accordingly. 

Once you identify these triggers, you can start creating a plan.

  • What can I do to avoid these triggers?
  • If I were to encounter any of these triggers, how can I prevent myself from drinking?

If loneliness is one of your triggers, you should develop a list of people you can call when feeling lonely. If you discover that social situations are triggers, you should ask a friend to help you choose mocktails instead. Although mocktails can lead to relapse, it’s still better than consuming alcohol.

Occupy Your Time

One of the primary issues we’re facing is an overabundance of free time. While lockdown affects everyone, those struggling with their sobriety are especially vulnerable when it comes to this idle time. You should try to fill this time with positive activities that are safe and keep your hands and mind busy. By doing so, you can distract yourself from using drugs or drinking alcohol.

Here are some safe alternative activities that can keep you occupied:

  • Running or going on a hike
  • Writing in a journal
  • Taking that online class you’ve always been interested in
  • Reading
  • Picking up a new skill or hobby
  • Cooking or baking new recipes
  • Completing puzzles
  • Writing music or making art

While these are designed to keep your busy, productive, and fulfilled, they can also help improve your overall health!

Stay Connected

Although you can’t physically spend time with friends or family, you can still virtually connect with them. Make sure to pick up your phone, go online for a Zoom call, or send them messages through social media or text. You must also check on those you care about and let them know how you’re feeling. These are challenging times, but you can get through them unscathed with the right activities. Remember, if you’re ever feeling down, there’s always a way to get help – it can be friends or family, or sponsors. Don’t hesitate to call them at any time.

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