Nellie,* a 75-year-old retiree, used to have a pretty busy social schedule. Between her weekly exercise classes and regular brunch dates with friends, she felt fulfilled and connected to others. Then, COVID hit.
Like others her age who were high-risk, she didn’t see anyone outside of immediate family once the quarantine began. Her world became smaller, limited to tense interactions with her adult daughter who she lived with and a disabled spouse.
Soon, her enthusiasm for life started to dwindle. To feel better and pass the time, she began to drink in the afternoons while she watched Netflix. Her daughter was mortified to find the empty bottles.
What is going on with pandemic substance use?
“We are using it as an escape,” says Dr. Marian Ghebrial, integrative therapist and addiction expert at Orange County Health Psychologists. Before the pandemic, Ghebrial says, “normally we could distract ourselves [from stress] through activities, socialization, hobbies, and outings but now we’re just left with ourselves and feeling isolated.”
According to Ghebrial, parents are especially having a tough time. “There’s a lot of anxiety related to homeschooling and having to do jobs in a new and different way. Their normal escape might be going out with people, getting a manicure, or heading to the gym, but those things are inaccessible during the pandemic. I talk to some parents who say, ‘I feel like I start drinking about 2 or 3 o’clock after the kids finish their virtual classes.’ So we have to be careful with that.”
For example, let’s say your social anxiety makes you believe you’re not likable. Normally, a therapist would have you challenge those beliefs by going out and socializing anyway — but we can’t do that now. “Folks who have a propensity for negative core beliefs are especially affected because they have no new data coming in from their social environment to affirm them or challenge their self-defeating thoughts,” says Ghebrial.
What’s worse, if these feelings go unchecked and lead to more alcohol or prescription drug use, the consequences can be serious. Ghebrial predicts we will see higher rates of alcohol use disorder in the future, and those susceptible to addiction or have genetic components could develop an addiction. People who are taking more prescription meds than usual are even more at risk.
If all that wasn’t bad enough, alcohol abuse can also lower one’s immune system function, which doesn’t bode well for anyone having to battle COVID-19. According to the NIH, excessive alcohol consumption both causes inflammation and interferes with the body’s ability to fight off viral and bacterial infections.
How to spot signs of trouble
If you’re concerned about your pandemic substance use, or that of someone else, see if any of the following behaviors sound familiar. Are you or a loved one:
- Not fulfilling obligations or responsibilities?
- Hiding bottles, pills, or using other sneaky tactics to disguise substance use?
- Crashing on the couch?
- Experiencing memory deficits (blackouts)?
- Making excuses for missing work (even when you can work from home)?
- Feeling irritable?
- Neglecting hygiene and grooming?
Each of these could be signs of a problem. The good news, however, is there is help.
Dealing with pandemic substance use before it’s too late
Depending on your relationship, you may want to reach out to a loved one who seems like they are headed in a dangerous direction with their alcohol or drug use during the pandemic.
For instance, you might suggest that the two of you engage in activities to help that person reconnect to their hobbies. According to Ghebrial, quarantine has driven many people to use alcohol or drugs more often as a substitute because they feel they can no longer do the things they love.
Just don’t expect it to be easy.
“Denial and minimization are really common in addiction,” says Ghebrial. Instead, keep trying to focus on an activity you can do together that they would enjoy, perhaps online or socially distanced if necessary.
And if the one with the problem is you? First things first: Get up, even if you have nowhere to be. Obviously, even this simple bit of advice can be hard if we’re used to our lives having more structure. Now that we’re isolated at home, we might literally get up five minutes before a work meeting, which could increase our feelings of anxiety.
So instead, set a schedule for yourself at home. It could be just taking a shower, having a good breakfast, and even putting on makeup. “Mimic what life looked like when you were functioning better prior to COVID-19,” says Ghebrial.
She continues: “I also tell people, you need to have at least one thing to do that you’re excited about per day. Maybe it’s ‘Oh, I want to make this dessert I saw on a cooking show, go for a walk, or play tennis with somebody.’” If you can’t do one every day, she says, then aim for at least once or twice a week. That way you’ll be less tempted to use alcohol or pills as your source of enjoyment or as your go-to in order to escape or numb unpleasant emotions and a lackluster lifestyle.
Also, reach out to friends once in a while. Even if you feel weird about doing this because you don’t want to tell people you’re struggling, you can still connect in other ways. “Send a text or funny [email] to start a conversation,” says Ghebrial. At the very least, it will help you stay connected to what was “normal” and treasured in your life from before — and lessen the need for substances.
Finally, if you are at risk of substance abuse — especially prescription drugs — you may want to reach out for professional help. You might start with your primary care doctor or a therapist referral. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are other options, as well as community or faith-based recovery groups.
Make a call today
If you or someone you love is ready to talk about pandemic substance use, the providers at Orange County Health Psychologists are available to help via in-person or via telehealth. Contact us to be matched with a provider and get started on your recovery journey today.
*Not her real name.
—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists
About Marian Ghebrial, Ph.D.
Dr. Marian Ghebrial is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 15 years of experience in the field. Dr. Ghebrial specializes in treatment of addictive disorders, as well as working with issues of PTSD/trauma, anxiety disorders, depressive/mood disorders, and couples therapy. In addition to her private practice with Orange County Health Psychologists, Dr Ghebrial is a Psychologist for the VA where she continues to work with veterans and their families.