Managing Stress and Addiction During a Pandemic

Stress and addiction often go hand-in-hand. Stress can lead to substance abuse and also trigger relapses. Both are impacted by external factors, often out of your control. What you can control is how you respond to something like a pandemic. A frightening public health crisis could have you spinning out of control, but it doesn’t have to. Manage stress, take care of your mental health, and avoid any degree of substance use.

A pandemic can be very frightening. It can leave you feeling stressed, anxious, helpless, and even depressed. If you already struggle with mental health symptoms or addiction, this is a dangerous time for you on many levels. Stress can trigger relapses of both. With Coronavirus (COVID-19) spreading and panic setting in, it’s important to maintain perspective, learn the facts, take reasonable precautions, and take steps to manage your mental as well as your physical health. This doesn’t have to be a setback for your progress.

The Relationship Between Addiction and Mental Health

Co-occurring mental illness and addiction is common. Nearly half of all people with severe mental illness struggle with substance abuse. This represents one extreme end of the spectrum, but it highlights the deep connection between substance abuse and mental health.

Even if you don’t have a diagnosis of a mental illness, symptoms like stress, anxiety, and depression may lead you to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. This can lead to a substance use disorder. In recovery from an addiction, any added stress or anxiety, such as those triggered by external situations like a pandemic, can trigger a relapse.

Stress is a known risk factor for addiction, especially chronic stress. If a public health crisis is raising your anxiety and stress levels, you’re not alone, but if you don’t manage it the consequences can become serious. It may worsen or trigger episodes of mental illness, cause you to misuse substances, or both.

How to Cope Healthfully With a Worrisome Pandemic

While public health crises, like the Coronavirus, have the potential to cause a lot of stress and anxiety, there are healthy ways to manage the situation. Work on your stress levels and avoid drugs and alcohol to stay healthy during a difficult time.

1. Learn More, but From Valid Sources.

Panic during a pandemic can be nearly as big an issue as the illness itself. The media is often a source of worry and anxiety and can lead to panic and hoarding of supplies. To feel better about what’s happening around you, it is good to be informed. It will help you feel more in control of the situation. On the other hand, reading too much about the illness can trigger more stress.

What you need is a balance and to get your information from the right sources. Turn to valid news sites, government agencies, and your own doctors to learn about the illness and what you need to do to prepare. Not only will this give you some control, it will also help you get perspective on what may seem like a devastating situation.

2. Unplug From Information Overload.

Being informed during a public health crisis is essential. However, focusing too much on the state of the pandemic can trigger stress. Learn what you need to know to be properly informed and prepared, and then unplug. Turn off the news, stay off social media, and spend time reading, playing games with family, or watching a movie instead.

3. Plan Ahead to Stay in Control.

Greater control is an antidote to stress. A pandemic is a scary event, but there are things you can do to prepare for it. Stock your home with enough food, water, medications, and other essentials for a couple of weeks. Talk to your doctor about what else you need to do. Take precautionary steps when you have to leave home, such as washing your hands and keeping distance from other people.

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4. But Also Accept What You Can’t Control.

Of course, there is a limit to the benefit that being in control offers. Obsessing over taking control of a stressful situation can lead to more worry and anxiety. An important aspect of stress management, regardless of the cause, is learning to recognize and accept what you cannot change. Once you can do that, you can then adapt to the given situation.

When you can’t control external factors, like the spread of a disease, you can still control your response and reaction. Think about your perspective and reframe the problem in a more positive light. Do you have to stay home because of the illness? Consider the upside to this: avoiding rush hour traffic, spending more time with family, and doing relaxing things at home.

5. Take Care of Your Physical Health.

Managing your physical health will not only keep you stronger in the face of an illness going around, it will also shore up your mental health. Make sure you get enough sleep at night. Eat well and avoid indulging in junk foods to manage stress. Get exercise if you can and, if it’s safe to do so, get outside for a walk and some fresh air.

6. Practice Healthy Coping Strategies.

In the moments that the fear and worry over a public health crisis threaten to overwhelm you, take a few minutes to use proven stress management techniques. Try a few minutes of meditation, a yoga or stretching session, deep breathing, or positive visualizations.

Another good coping strategy is distraction. Find an activity that takes your mind away from the worries. A task or a hobby that requires a lot of mental focus will help you relax. Do something you enjoy too. Reading, knitting, even just doing a puzzle or tackling a work problem can help you feel better.

7. Up Your Mental Health Treatment.

If you are in recovery for addiction or get treatment for a mental illness, now is a good time to turn to your therapist or other mental health professional. Even if your recovery was solid up until now, an external stressor like a pandemic can shake you and lead to relapses. Get ahead of this by talking to your therapist or doctor about adding sessions or participate in online support group sessions.

8. Avoid Alcohol and Drugs.

This is an obvious rule for anyone in recovery, but it helps even if you are not. If you have not struggled with addiction in the past, it’s still important to avoid using substances as a way to cope. It may feel good initially to have that evening glass of wine after watching the news, but eventually this can become a bad habit that only increases your stress.

The inevitable stress and worry of a pandemic that hits close to home doesn’t have to take over your life. Your worry may be outsized compared to the threat, so try to keep it all in perspective. Distract yourself with other tasks, manage your mental health, avoid drinking and drugs, take smart precautions, and remember to unplug and avoid the news for periods of time.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.