Social isolation, disruption to routine, and financial stress stemming from COVID-19 have impacted people around the world. For individuals recovering from addiction, these challenges may pose special risks—potentially increasing their chances of relapse.
The Numbers So Far
Typically, relapse rates for people with substance use disorders hover around 40 to 60 percent. It’s too early to say whether these rates have increased during the pandemic. However, here are a few statistics we do know so far:
- Spikes in overdose-related deaths and emergency calls have been reported in localities across the US. These include Cayuga County in New York, Hamilton County in Ohio, and Jacksonville, Florida.
- Alcohol sales increased 55 percent in the second-to-last week of March 2020, compared with the previous year.
- A study by Well Being Trust and the American Academy of Family Physicians estimated up to 150,000 additional “deaths of despair” from drugs, alcohol, and suicide, linked to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition, experts caution that people struggling with addiction during COVID-19 are especially vulnerable to relapse.
Addiction and Relapse During COVID-19
Risk factors for relapse include isolation, stress, depression, and even boredom. These experiences drive some people to self-medicate. Unfortunately, all of these risk factors are common experiences during the current pandemic.
Since March, social distancing has meant reduced connection, a core psychological need for humans. For people in recovery, connection and a strong support system are particularly important. Additionally, social distancing may limit access to medications, peer-support groups, and other vital resources.
Meanwhile, the U.S. unemployment rate reached 14.7 percent in April 2020, and as of July remains above 10 percent. Not only can job loss contribute to financial worries and stress, it can also disrupt structure and routine, which are crucial for people in recovery.
Jobs also provide a significant window of time during which it is extremely difficult, or impossible to abuse substances. Unlimited free time, on the other hand, can be dangerous for people in recovery. This is especially true if that free time is spent alone and under unusually high stress.
Mental Health During the Coronavirus Pandemic
As mentioned above, depression and stress are both major factors influencing relapse. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing a historic increase in mental health problems in general, people with a history of substance abuse are at particularly high risk.
Consider the following facts about alcohol and mental health:
- A majority of people in treatment for alcohol use disorder score high on depression rating scales.
- Individuals who experience “major depressive episodes” may be twice as likely to develop an addiction to alcohol.
- Anxiety rates are twice as high in people with alcohol problems.
- Processing alcohol can extend and permanently alter your stress response, contributing to chronic stress.
More generally, over 51 percent of people who struggle with psychiatric disorders depend on, or abuse some type of psychoactive substance. What this means is that, even in the absence of direct statistics, relapse is a serious concern in the time of COVID-19. We all need to be extra conscious about caring for ourselves, or for loved ones with a history of alcohol abuse, during this time.
Tips for Avoiding Relapse
Despite the intimidating situation, there are plenty of things people in recovery can do to protect and support themselves. Here are a few tips for preventing relapse during COVID-19:
Know Your Triggers
Awareness is an important step in steering clear of relapse. Ask yourself:
- What are your triggers?
- What situations, people, or feelings make you want to drink alcohol?
While you can’t control every aspect of your life, knowing your triggers for relapse allows you to recognize risky situations, and act appropriately.
Once you identify your triggers, create a plan:
- What can you do to avoid this trigger?
- If you do encounter the trigger, what will you do to prevent yourself from drinking?
For example, if loneliness is a trigger, make a list of people you will call if you feel lonely. If you find that social situations are a trigger, consider asking a friend to help you stick to your limits, or choose some alcohol substitutes to drink instead. One of the few upsides of having to stay at home is that it’s actually easier to avoid these situations! Take your advantages where you can find them.
Occupy Your Time
Many people are facing more free time, and more alone time than usual right now. Try to fill this time with positive activities that keep your hands and mind occupied, distracting you from drinking.
Some alternative activities include:
- Running or hiking
- Taking an online class
- Picking up a new hobby or skill
- Making art or music
- Completing puzzles
- Cooking/baking new recipes
In addition to distracting you, these activities will help you feel productive and fulfilled. Some may even improve your overall health!
Maybe you can’t physically spend time with some of your friends and family members right now—but you can still connect virtually. Pick up the phone, hop on a Zoom call, or send a message via text or social media. Check on the people you care about, and share how you’re feeling as well.
If you’re worried that you’ll relapse, enlist a few supportive loved ones to help you stay accountable. Plan regular check-ins, or ask them if you can call when you’re struggling with cravings. In addition, many alcohol-focused support groups have moved online. There may be ways to connect with peers without leaving your house.
Self-care is always important, but it’s especially critical now. Remember to exercise, eat nutritious meals, and get plenty of rest.
Engage in activities that make you feel happy and peaceful. This may include yoga, meditation, or other practices such as deep breathing. It may also mean spending time outdoors, or playing with your dog. Think about what helps you feel balanced and content, and do more of it.
Be Kind to Yourself
Similarly, remember to treat yourself with kindness and patience. Most people are struggling right now, and your feelings are normal and acceptable. Try to notice your emotions without judging them. Talk to yourself with the same compassion you would show to a friend who’s having a hard time.
If you do slip, focus on recognizing why it happened and how you’ll prevent it from happening again. It’s best to move forward and forgive yourself, rather than dwelling on your mistakes.
Read More: Staying Sober During Social Distancing
Online Treatment Programs
Access to some traditional forms of alcohol treatment may be limited right now, but online treatment programs are a great alternative. Advances in telemedicine allow you to access comprehensive and convenient treatment from an app on your smartphone.
Ria Health is one program that gives you access to full medical support, recovery coaches, prescription anti-craving medications, and even virtual support groups from the comfort and safety of home. Whether you want to quit drinking, or simply reduce your consumption, Ria Health supports you in reaching your personal goals.
Schedule a call to learn how we can help you change your relationship to alcohol, even during these uniquely challenging times.