Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, it was believed social distancing and stay at home orders would be a short-lived thing. Sadly, this appears to be an inaccurate assumption. Initially, most states initiated stay at home orders, which were slated to last through the first weeks of April. As time passed and the medical community realized COVID-19 was here to stay, stay at home orders and associated societal impacts have extended into May and in some states, June.
These are very trying times for everyone, but addicts and recovering addicts are particularly at risk as their usual coping methods and ways to avoid triggers have been removed through social distancing and the cancelation and restrictions on group events. In addition, stay at home orders by their very nature result in isolation and time spent alone, which can be detrimental to the recovery process for some addicts. During the early stages of recovery, addicts are taught to reach out and gain support from other addicts who share their experiences and goals. COVID-19 has made attending in-person meetings and therapy sessions impossible, and as a result, the ability to gain strength from social circles has also become difficult.
Those who struggle with a substance use disorder frequently experience feelings of isolation. These feelings can contribute to addiction or, in some cases, relapse. Unfortunately, COVID-19 in and of itself makes isolation an unavoidable situation, especially for addicts who live alone. Social distancing and stay at home orders have brought people inside and forced them to be alone with their thoughts more than ever. Many (almost every) American has some level of anxiety around COVID-19. It could be a fear of getting sick themselves, or a fear of a friend or loved one getting sick. Always tuning to social media during the pandemic or the news may not be the most beneficial way to reduce anxiety. It is hard to view any social media feed or news program without hearing about how many new cases of COVID-19 there have been in the last twenty-four hours or how many souls have lost their lives to the virus. Also, most recovering addicts know they likely have a weakened immune system as a result of their previous addiction. This can only serve to heighten their fear of becoming ill. Being isolated at home does not provide for many outlets to help alleviate fear and anxiety.
With the knowledge that social distancing and stay at home orders likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, what are some things people in recovery can do to help limit the feelings of isolation while staying on track and reducing temptation and triggers.
Group Gatherings While Social Distancing
Group gatherings are the cornerstone of recovery for most addicts. Group meetings through organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (or Narcotics Anonymous) are the first line of defense many people turn to during recovery when things get complicated. In addition to group gatherings, in-person meetings with a sponsor or social support groups are also essential to the mental health of most addicts during recovery. COVID-19 has put a hold on group socialization events until further notice. Furthermore, in-person meetings with sponsors are not encouraged as people have been encouraged to avoid socializing with people outside their direct family units during the pandemic. This had added an extra layer of challenge and frustration for addicts when they need to reach out to someone during challenging times. Fortunately, we live in an era where technology can help ease these added challenges.
Online meetings and talks were widely available before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic; they just weren’t utilized as heavily or talked about as frequently. Of course, the use of and need for virtual meetings has increased due to stay at home orders, and addicts have begun to turn to them when they need group or even individual support from others while staying at home.
Although virtual meetings are certainly a change of pace (and environment), they allow for the ability to communicate, which is so vital to recovery. Additionally, virtual meetings make use of platforms that allow for video chat so you can spend time with your support circles without physically spending time in the same room.
Stay Busy and Find New Ways to Be Busy
Many in recovery fill their time through time spent with social support circles, like-minded peers, or even attending therapy appointments. Unfortunately, these are not options at this time, and therefore, many people are experiencing a significant amount of extra idle time in their days. For recovery addicts, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Recovering addicts are generally encouraged to keep busy, as boredom is often a quick path to relapse. Being stuck in the house all day is boring, but it is what we need to do right now to flatten the curve and slow the progress of COVID-19. If you cannot participate in your usual hobbies or pass-times, now is an excellent time to consider alternatives.
Spend time online engaging with loved ones-
Now is an excellent opportunity to spend time online (or on your smartphone) having conversations with friends and loved ones you usually do not get to talk to. Isolation is scary for everyone, and it may be beneficial not only for you but for them as well to hear a familiar voice and see a familiar face. People have a lot more time now and what better way to spend it than solidifying or fostering relationships with people we care about.
Try a new hobby–
Nothing can help you get out of your head faster than getting something in your hands. Distraction is an excellent tool for inhibiting the anxiety and emotions that can arise when boredom takes control of your environment. What are some things you have always thought you might like to try but have never had the time (or convinced yourself that you don’t have the time)? Perhaps you have always wanted to learn to play guitar or drums? Maybe you have wanted to learn how to paint or knit. Maybe you have always wanted to learn a foreign language or sit down a read a series of books by a favorite author. How about planting a vegetable or flower garden? The possibilities are limitless and only limited by your want or desire to make them happen.
The process of starting a new project and seeing it through to fruition can be a satisfying experience. The stages during which you are working on the project can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. They will also undoubtedly limit the amount of time you spend on social media or watching television, which is an unfortunate source of negative stimulation currently. Remaining busy, especially if you are focusing your mind on learning something new that is exciting and stimulating, will also help to keep your mind off alcohol and reduce the chances of triggering events leading to self-medication or relapse.
It is essential to take care of yourself and your mind during times of stress. It is valuable to take a few minutes and sit with yourself to remember what your beliefs are and why you have chosen to walk the path of sobriety. The levels of isolation we are all experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic can easily lead to increased feelings of anxiety and depression. There are several things you can do to take some time for you and to look after your mental health. Consider taking a long shower or bath, trying guided meditation (there are several of various lengths available online), or perhaps consider yoga. You can even sit down for an afternoon and replay your favorite old television shows or a favorite movie. Regardless of what you choose for self-care, the purpose is to care for you and to take a few minutes to get in touch with and regulate your emotions.
Although public exercise facilities such as gyms and fitness centers are closed, there are many other options available to you to help keep your body healthy. Exercise is an excellent way to ward off boredom as it serves multiple purposes. First, it helps keep your mind off the current emotionally charged situation. Second, it helps to keep your body healthy and in shape, which can help you fight off illness and disease and just feel better overall.
Many fitness organizations have made their programs available online during the COVID-19 pandemic to help people remain active during the stay at home orders. There are also programs that are typically available online for a fee that have either reduced or eliminated their fees for a time to make their programs more accessible.
You can also take the time to get outside! Yes, most of the United States is operating under stay at home orders. However, most states still allow people to go outside for exercise purposes as long as social distancing procedures can be followed. If you live in an area where you can walk, hike, bike, or do something active outside, get out there! Not only will it help to alleviate boredom and feelings of isolation and being shut-in, but it will help you to stay physically healthy while looking after your mental health.
Spending time alone in isolation, especially when not voluntary, can be difficult for most people. Regardless of whether you usually choose to be out and social or whether you tend to be more of a homebody, there is something unpleasant and trying about being “forced” to stay home for the health of yourself and others. Sadly, there is no clear or finite amount of time indicated for how long we are expected to remain under stay at home orders or asked to follow social distancing guidelines. There is also the increased level of fear many are living with today. Fear of the unknown is a potent problem for those who turn to substances as a form of self-medication or to cope with triggering emotions or events that become too much to handle. Living with the daily fear that we may lose someone we love, or we could become ill ourselves causes a sense of helplessness, which seems insurmountable when we are living in isolation.
It is essential to find ways to keep busy and occupy your mind to maintain your mental health and stability during what are certainly unusual times. Focusing on your mental health and healthy coping mechanisms will help you to stay on track and enforce your ability to resist temptation when it inevitably comes around. Most importantly, remember, although it may feel otherwise, you are not alone in isolation. If you begin to feel triggered or anxious, reach out to the Hills Treatment Center, friends, family, or members of your social support circles to talk. Often seeing a friendly face or hearing a reassuring voice, even if only virtually, can put your mind at ease.