It has been several months now since we first heard the terms coronavirus, novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. Since then, COVID-19 has become the main topic of conversation, virtually everywhere we turn. The overwhelming majority of news and social media platforms seem to cover or discuss little else. As more positive cases develop across the United States, it has become clear that this pandemic will, in some way, touch virtually every American. As a result, uncertainty and, in some cases, panic has ensued.
Vulnerability, fear, and anxiety are natural reactions during a time like this. There is so much that us unknown and unpredictable. We want to turn to others for support or to discuss our concerns. The need for social interaction has been made even more complicated due to many states imposing stay at home orders, closing businesses and services, and forcing the cancellation of group gatherings and events.
It is common knowledge that alcohol consumption can weaken a person’s immune system over time. Consequently, a person with an alcohol use or abuse disorder is considered to be amongst the most vulnerable populations for contracting COVID-19.
At this time, flattening the curve is the nation’s priority, which makes for unique challenges for those who are battling alcoholism. Many businesses that are considered non-essential have been closed, but oddly, establishments that sell alcohol are quite often regarded as essential and therefore have remained open for business. During times of social distancing and home quarantines, isolation, anxiety, and depression can manifest significant issues for someone struggling with alcoholism or who is in recovery.
How COVID-19 Affects Those Struggling with Alcoholism
Nationwide, there is a common goal to flatten the curve. The premise behind this is that through the introduction of social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders, the sharp rise in new cases of COVID-19 throughout the United States will start to level off and eventually begin to decline. There are indeed benefits to these new guidelines; however, there are definite negative emotional impacts as well. The need for social distancing and voluntary (or involuntary) isolation can bring on intense feelings of loneliness and anxiety. For those who struggle with alcohol use or abuse issues, there is also the fear associated with the known decrease in immune system health and the potential for increased susceptibility to infection and illnesses such as COVID-19. Additionally, the restrictions on leaving your home can result in isolation from your support systems and abnormal access to alcohol, which can cause withdrawal symptoms. All of the above and more can make this time immensely challenging for those struggling with an addiction to alcohol.
During these unique times, it is essential to acknowledge and understand the challenges you, as an individual, may face during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each person will experience different mental health issues, personal struggles, or challenges related to health and addiction. Some of these issues were briefly touched upon above; however, in the following paragraphs, we will offer a slightly deeper dive into some of the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic may present. A clear understanding of these challenges and risks may help you to avoid self-medicating, which can increase the risk of relapse in addition to increasing the risk of illness and the presentation of other co-occurring mental health issues.
Anxiety and depression:
People worry; it’s a normal human response. When faced with the unknown, even those with the most robust constitution can experience periods of fear and worry, which can lead to self-medication via whatever method we deem to be the most successful. With the ongoing threat and concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic right outside the door, it is understandable to feel stressed and anxious about yourself or your loved ones you are unable to be with.
If you are someone who is struggling with alcohol addiction or abuse, anxiety is a common side effect. It is also not surprising your feelings of anxiety are enhanced or elevated during this time. Feelings of anxiety and distress are only heightened by all of the misunderstanding and conflicting information seen online and on the news about COVID-19 and its impact on health and the economy. Unfortunately, all of the elevated anxiety may cause people to reach for those coping mechanisms that have always worked in the past.
Various studies show a strong link between anxiety disorders and alcohol use disorders. Prolonged alcohol addiction and associated symptoms of withdrawal when someone tries to enter rehab, are also associated with an increased occurrence of anxiety. There is also a study that estimates approximately twenty percent of people with general anxiety disorder self-medicate with alcohol to alleviate the symptoms of their condition. On a related note, roughly three percent of people with panic disorders will also use alcohol to self-medicate. The symptoms of both anxiety disorders and panic disorders are not surprisingly heightened during this time.
To limit or combat increased feelings of anxiety, you may find it beneficial to limit the time you spend on social media or watching news-related programming each day. Unfortunately, as the world clamors for information about the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a massive outpouring of information-some accurate and some not. It is essential to be proactive about your mental health during this time and try to avoid triggers that can increase feelings of anxiety. Try to get outside and go for a walk or run, eat well-balanced meals, and make regular and restful sleep a priority.
Isolation from Your Support Circles:
“We need to flatten the curve.” This is the statement we hear daily on newscasts and internet live streams. In an effort to reach this accomplishment, most state governments have advised their citizens to follow the guidelines handed down by the Centers for Disease Control regarding social distancing and isolation. Social distancing requires people to stay at least six feet away from each other while out in public. It also encourages gatherings of no more than ten people in most places. Some states have “banned” gatherings of groups of any size until the pandemic is over. Social distancing also means many state governments have enacted stay at home orders, which means their citizens are supposed to remain in their homes, only going out for essential needs such as groceries.
All of this presents a challenge if you are in recovery from alcohol addiction and rely on your support circles for continued sobriety. Additionally, if you are struggling with alcohol abuse issues, you may already feel isolated and lonely, so being forced to stay home- potentially alone- does not help at all. Some studies indicate withdrawal, and the process of detox increases feelings of loneliness and depression. With this in mind, the need to isolate from friends and family in the interest of minimizing the spread of COVID-19 has the unintended adverse effect of taking away your ability to socialize with your support system.
For the majority of those who are struggling with alcohol abuse-related issues, creating and maintaining healthy social connections is the fuel to either remain sober or continue working towards sobriety if they are new to recovery. These social circles, be it friends and family or group members from a meeting group that you attend, are currently off-limits physically at least. You are unable to participate in in-person meetings due to voluntary (or involuntary) isolation needs. You are also unable to visit friends and family who do not live with you for the same reasons. Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that those who struggle with addiction may be feeling even more vulnerable and potentially become triggered to pick up an alcoholic beverage as a form of self-medication.
When you experience these feelings, remember that we live in an age where technology can be a curse but also a savior. Items such as iPads, iPhones, and computers have made it easier than ever before to connect with our loved ones or social support networks no matter where we may be located. Use this capability to speak to friends, family, therapists, or anyone else who may be able to help you through these challenging times without putting your sobriety or recovery at risk. Also, as we all continue to distance ourselves socially, many programs have begun to offer virtual twelve-step meetings that are available to join online.
A Weakened Immune System
The coronavirus family of viruses has been around for a long time. Respiratory infections ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as MERS and SARS are all part of this family of viruses. COVID-19, however, is a new virus whose symptoms seem to be broad-ranging (from mild to severe). COVID-19 also carries with it the risk for more serious (and in some cases, fatal) illness in those over the age of 65 and those with preexisting medical conditions and/or weakened immune systems.
Over the years, there have been many studies that have shown a clear association between excessive alcohol consumption and a weakened immune system, specifically when it comes to someone’s susceptibility to pneumonia. Because of this, those who live with alcohol use or abuse disorder may be among those who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Additionally, even if you are in recovery or you feel as though your drinking is “under control,” the same research shows that non-chronic alcohol drinkers can still experience negative health consequences as acute binge drinking can also compromise the immune system.
Chronic alcohol abuse can also lead to several issues with your cardiopulmonary system. This is the system in your body that includes your heart and lungs. COVID-19 attacks the respiratory system, so it is essential to have your lungs functioning at peak levels in order to fight off the symptoms of this virus and decrease the chances of potential hospitalization or even death. If you are currently in recovery, this is the time to focus on your positive coping mechanisms so as to avoid turning to alcohol to self-medicate. If you are not, you may be tempted to give up alcohol (and other vices) altogether until the COVID-19 is over or until there is a vaccine. If you have developed a physical dependence on alcohol, this can also be challenging as quitting cold turkey can lead to symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
If you have decided to quit alcohol use, it is essential to do so as safely and in a healthy manner as possible. Alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing disease, but with professional treatment, the appropriate supports, recovery is possible.
The COVID-19 pandemic as brought with it many changes to how we live our day to day lives. Weddings, group events, concerts, Universal Studios, and Disney (among others) have all be closed, canceled, or rescheduled. Millions of students of all ages are homeschooling, and thousands of people are now teleworking or, unfortunately, unemployed.
The simple things we often take for granted, such as the shelves at the store being full and being able to run to the corner coffee shop for a latte, have also been put on hold. It should come as no surprise that this has resulted in anxiety, fear, and uncertainty about what the future may look like. For those who entered the days and weeks that have been associated with the COVID-19 pandemic without addiction or mental health concerns, these times are challenging. It goes without saying that those who struggle with mental health or addiction concerns will experience more significant struggles. Remember to reach out to your social circles and support networks whenever possible. Technology has made virtual communication possible and, therefore, the ability to remain connected to those who can help you through challenging times.
Virtual connection also allows you the ability to reach out to therapists or medical providers like The Hills when triggers become challenging to manage. In time social distancing and isolation recommendations will ease and eventually lift. Until that time, we must all learn to manage life under a “new normal.” Turning to those who share similar experiences can be the most valuable coping mechanism during these challenging times.