Mental Health and Substance Use

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As of the first week of April, only five states here in the United States have not implemented stay at home orders. For some locations, the orders are new, having just gone into effect in recent days. For others, the original orders that went into effect in early to mid-March are about to be extended into May and possibly beyond as state and federal governments struggle to get a handle on just how long they should be in place. The challenge lies with understanding the process of the COVID-19 virus from infection to resolution and from that understanding creating a social distancing plan that will get each state through its peak infection period before lifting stay at home orders. For most of us sitting at home and learning about COVID-19 through the news and press conferences, all of the above can sound confusing and somewhat scary. For some people, stay at home orders are a frustrating inconvenience. For others, they could likely be a gateway to significant mental health challenges, which could lead to new issues of substance abuse or relapse for those who are in recovery.

Many different news outlets have reported on the increase in mental health symptoms associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. These reports indicate behavioral healthcare providers are concerned that individuals with a history of substance use may turn to alcohol or drugs (even if they have been sober for some time) as a way to numb their feelings of anxiety over COVID-19 and its impacts on their finances and potential health effects. Similarly, people with depression and other related mental illnesses may find it very challenging to cope with self-isolation and stay at home orders as they are a significant disruption to their daily routines. These challenges could inevitably lead to new situations of substance use as a form of self-medication to relieve depression and anxiety symptoms.

Mental health and substance use during isolation

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to how we live our day to day lives. It has brought with it uncertainty, significant alterations in our daily routines, financial stressors, and the creation of social distancing guidelines. Additionally, many of us are functioning on news overload, which has created increased fear about whether we or a loved one could get sick. We are also wondering how long this will all last, what the future holds, and when life can begin to return to normal. Unfortunately, there is not a clear answer to any of these questions yet.

For those who are already living with mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, the stress, anxiety, sadness, and fear associated with the COVID-19 pandemic can increase the symptoms of mental illness. For individuals who are in recovery from substance use, the pandemic can lead to relapse as people reach for things that are or have always been a source of comfort during confusing times. It doesn’t help that many local coffee shops are closed until further notice, but liquor stores remain open for business. It is essential for individuals who live each day with a mental illness or substance use disorder to develop self-care strategies and coping mechanisms that can help you cope in a healthy manner.

Self-care Strategies:

Developing (or adhering to exiting) self-care strategies is good for your mental and physical health. They can also help you continue to maintain control of your life during a time when we feel as though we have very little control. It is important to take care of your body and mind during this time.

Take care of your body

Many of us are staying home now more than we ever have. This can lead to people being more sedentary and simply not as physically healthy as they previously were. It can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms for those who previously struggled with substance use during challenging times. With gyms and fitness studios closed due to social distancing, it is essential to be mindful of your physical health in other ways, especially if exercise is one of your primary self-care strategies during recovery.

Get enough sleep

For many people, stay at home orders have upended their day to day schedules. Those who are used to getting up and out of the house at a specific time each day are either teleworking from home or on temporary furlough while stay at home orders are in effect. This means schedules are not as likely to be maintained. People are likely to stay up later or sleep later in the day, and this can lead to feeling unhealthy. Despite not needing to maintain a strict work schedule, it is important to try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Try to stick to your typical schedule, regardless of what your day requires at this time. This can help to assure your routines stay in place, and you are less likely to look to unhealthy coping mechanisms when triggers arise.

Participate in regular physical activity

Regular physical activity for roughly thirty minutes per day can help to reduce anxiety and improve mood. Although gyms and fitness centers are currently not an option, there are many other ways to get exercise. Find an activity that includes movement such as walking, hiking, or at home fitness programs. Many online fitness programs are currently offering deep discounts or programs free of charge while people are isolated at home. There are also several fitness programs available online through services such as YouTube or Amazon Prime. If you live in an area where you can get outside and walk or hike while maintaining safe social distance, take advantage of nature and fresh air whenever you can.

Maintain a healthy diet

Grocery shopping and maintaining a refrigerator full of fresh items is challenging at this time. To the best of your ability, try and maintain a healthy and well-balanced diet. This will help to keep your energy levels up and reduce feelings of depression and sadness while you are isolated at home. Try to limit caffeine intake if possible, as it can increase stress and anxiety symptoms.

Avoid tobacco and alcohol products

If you struggle with sobriety, this should go without saying. However, if you are a smoker or you vape, you are already at an increased risk for lung and cardiovascular diseases. COVID-19 affects the lungs, and your risk of significant virus symptoms is further elevated.

Remember to take time for yourself

These times are challenging for everyone. The news and social media are a constant feed of negativity and fear-inducing news coverage. This can increase symptoms of anxiety and other mental health issues in people who currently struggle. It can also increase the chance of people turning to harmful coping mechanisms, even when they usually would choose otherwise. It is essential to take time for yourself and set aside a few minutes each day for relaxation. This time will help to quiet your mind and reduce the feelings of increasing anxiety, which are only normal during isolation. Many people may benefit from relaxation practices such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga. Others may benefit from listening to music, reading a book, or even taking a warm bubble bath. It doesn’t matter which technique you choose; simply make sure it is something you can turn to successfully when you experience a triggering event.

Take care of your mind

Reduce the opportunity for triggers

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we all had daily routines that helped to keep our lives stable. For those who struggle with mental health or substance use issues, these routines are often a lifeline that is essential to continued health and sobriety. Unfortunately, the social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders associated with trying to slow the global spread of this virus have created added challenges when it comes to avoiding triggering events.

Try and keep a regular routine

Maintaining a regular schedule (as much as possible under current restrictions) is essential to continued mental health. In addition to maintaining a regular sleep schedule, try to keep consistent times for meals, work and study schedules, exercise, and other daily rituals. Also, be sure to set aside time for self-care and hobbies or activities that you enjoy. This can help assure elements of your life remain predictable and offer a sense of control.

Limit exposure to media

Unfortunately, watching the news right now is not uplifting. Constant news and coverage about COVID-19 from all types of media (televised and social) can only heighten fears about the disease and how it could have a personal impact. Choosing to limit what you read on social media may help to reduce your exposure to rumors and false information. Also, limiting what you read, hear, or watch on other news sources can help to reduce levels of stress and anxiety. Try to keep up to date on local and national recommendations from reliable sources so you understand what should be done at this time to help slow the transmission of the virus.

Stay busy

Keeping yourself distracted from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression will be the most beneficial at this time. Enjoy hobbies and activities that you can do at home. Try and tackle those household projects that you have been putting off due to time constraints. Doing things that are positive to manage anxiety (as opposed to utilizing harmful or substance-related coping strategies) is a healthy coping mechanism.

Stay Connected

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For those who struggle with mental health or substance use issues, social support circles are one of the most important things. Social distancing has made spending physical time in or around social groups impossible. Having said that, there are ways to stay connected and maintain contact with family, friends, and support structures.

Make and maintain connections

If you are required to stay at home due to a stay at home order or even voluntary quarantine, do not allow yourself to experience social isolation. Find time during the day to connect with those you normally spend time with through virtual methods. Social distancing has not removed options such as email, text, phone calls or FaceTime, and other similar communication apps. If you are working from home, take advantage of skyping or Zoom meetings to talk to co-workers. If you are looking to make contact with friends, try hosting or attending a Netflix watch party. This allows people to stay in contact and “hang out” together, while still following social distancing guidelines.

Seek and give support

If you, a family member or a friend, are struggling, do not hesitate to reach out for support or be the support system that someone needs. As previously noted, it is essential to remember although you may feel isolated at the moment, you are not alone. Support from family, friends, your therapy group members, and even your therapy provider in some cases is just a phone call away.

Recognize what is normal (and what is not)

Stress and anxiety are a normal psychological reaction to the demands of everyday life. It is perfectly acceptable for stress, anxiety, and even depression symptoms to be heightened during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and these added stressors can push many beyond their ability to cope in a healthy manner. Despite best efforts, those who struggle with mental health issues may find they are feeling helpless, sad, angry, fearful, or hopeless. They may also have increasing difficulty concentrating, sleeping, or even getting up to face the day. Under these circumstances, people may struggle to utilize their regular routine of healthy coping mechanisms, and they may have an increased desire to turn to coping methods that are unhealthy.

Hoping mental health issues such as depression and anxiety will just go away on their own after the pandemic is over may only lead to worsening symptoms. If you have a pre-existing mental health condition and experience an increase in your symptoms, it is essential that you reach out for help when you need to. Turn to those in your support groups or social support circles to communicate about your fears, concerns, or anything else that may be on your mind. Self-medicating through substances or other means is not a healthy coping mechanism and can lead to relapse or new addiction issues. These times are indeed challenging, and unfortunately, they do not have an end date as of yet. But, through ongoing communication and self-care, these events too will pass. Contact the Hills Treatment Center today for strategies and ideas about how you can overcome addiction concerns during this challenging time.

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