Advice for people in recovery from drug & alcohol addiction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of those who are currently in recovery are reaching out and sharing about feeling anxious, stressed or even hyper-vigilant regarding the coronavirus type that is currently roaming across the globe – COVID-19. So, how can we manage our anxieties during this global pandemic? And what can we do to help ourselves and those we care about?
Fight or Flight
First of all, it is important to know that these feelings are reasonable, normal responses to the threats we read about every day in the news and on social media. This kind of vigilance is actually an effective defence mechanism.
Hypervigilance, like many defence mechanisms, is an often unconscious psychological response that has its beginnings in the amygdala1, that almond-shaped part of the brain that is well known for the part it plays in fear conditioning. We develop defence mechanisms to help us alleviate feelings of anxiety or upset that can arise from harmful or unpleasant stimuli. Defence mechanisms help keep us safe and happy and protect us against things that are upsetting.
So, as uncomfortable as our anxiety feelings might be, our nervous system is primarily our friend, it assesses our environment for a potential threat and prepares us to take action if need be.
The problem is that we have no outlet for our flight or fight responses in this situation and we cannot know exactly how and when the virus will reach our communities. Under these circumstances it is totally understandable to try anything and everything to make yourself feel a bit more secure, and engage in behaviour like hoarding food and toilet paper; although it is not the best option.
So understanding all this, what can we do? How can we manage this period of stress in a healthy, recovery-focused way?
Managing our emotions effectively
There are some things that we can do to help protect ourselves and our loved ones, and there are also many things we can do to manage our emotions skillfully and to strengthen our recoveries. Three ways we can manage our emotions effectively are:
The first suggestion is to stay connected to people who feel safe for you! Connecting with others is a really effective antidote for stress. That might sound counterintuitive given the advice we have been repeatedly given to isolate ourselves and avoid other people but the good news is that there is actually plenty of support for recovering addicts that does not require in-person attendance.
You can use skype, zoom or google hangouts to connect with peers and professionals.
Your recovery does not need to take a back seat at this time. In fact, recovering addicts are going to any lengths for their recoveries, and addicts have actually been able to increase their meeting attendance. I will list resources below where you can find online support and meetings every day of the week. Connect with other people in recovery, and share what has been useful, and of course what you are struggling with too. Other sober community members are an invaluable support in stressful times.
The second suggestion is to foster a sense of safety. We may not know much about what the future may hold, but we do know quite a bit about how the mind works and emotional regulation. We know that activation of the survival response on a neurological, physiological, biological and emotional level for a prolonged period is not good for us, and could cause us to use old and unhelpful coping mechanisms.
Taking action can help us feel safe and can help our system to let go of that heightened response. So what healthy coping mechanisms have you got that it might be a good idea to use now?
You can reclaim your sense of safety by consistently identifying small opportunities to shift your focus from danger to safety; this can start to reverse the cycle of self-generated fear. Be aware of positive, supportive, protective things that you can already depend on, such as:
The recovery community
A compassionate friend
A relaxing technique, like lighting a candle or burning some incense
Think about what makes you feel protected and safe? Is there something that you can do to help you feel a bit safer and in control?
If you can shift your attention a number of times a day, it will help to shift you out of survival mode.
In fact, those of us in recovery have lots of skills that will help us to manage our emotions and tolerate any distress we might feel in these difficult times. To help us identify our thinking patterns; it is a great idea to journal. Writing down your thoughts, urges, and reactions can really help us to acknowledge what might be problematic, so we can change it.
If you can make time each day to really let your body calm down, and relax that will really help. Practising a simple breath meditation, a bit of loving-kindness or body scan meditation will really help relax the body and the mind.
The benefits of meditation include:
a sense of physical and mental relaxation
a lower heart rate
lower blood pressure
calmed fight and flight stress response
a greater sense of control of attention
an increase in positive emotion
an increases insight and self-awareness
Self-regulation is a necessary quality for living a successful and happy life, it is one that we focus on a lot in recovery from addiction and in rehab. Getting better equipped with self-regulation tools will mean that we are better able to weather the storms of life without resorting to our addictive behaviours.
Research investigating the impact of cultivating mindful awareness conducted by Marieke Van Vugt2 has shown that mindfulness practice, even for beginners, leads to improvements in the quality of attention you are able to bring. Being able to be present at the moment can offer significant relief from anxiety about the future, this is good news for all of us who are struggling with not knowing how and when COVID-19 might impact our communities.
Many people have reported compulsively clicking on articles and reading more and more about COVID-19. Remember that social media is a medium that is designed to capture your attention and get you to stay on site. The way these platforms work, combined with the hyper-vigilant way we respond to threat, means that being online can make us feel really ramped up in terms of anxiety. Set some healthy boundaries for yourself, have technology-free time in the day, to relax, talk to friends, draw or read a book.
Check your news sources
Social Media is also full of the usual slew of incorrect information or ‘fake news’. Facebook and YouTube are working well to combat this kind of misinformation – now when you search COVID-19, the top results should be from reliable sites such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the NHS, but this doesn’t mean that many thousands of people are touting conspiracy theories or fake cures online.
It is a good idea to stay informed about how best to care for ourselves and our loved ones, but when you do go online to check the news and seek advice, choose your sources wisely. To help with that I will link some reliable sources of information below.
Only go outside for food, health reasons or work (but only if you cannot work from home)
If you go out, stay 2 metres (6ft) away from other people at all times
Wash your hands as soon as you get home
Do not meet others, even friends or family.
You can spread the virus even if you don’t have symptoms.
You can read more up-to-date information about the guidelines as laid out by the prime minister here, and it will also be listed along with all the other resources at the end of this article.
An important thing to remember is that finding this stressful is normal! Struggling with difficult or uncomfortable feelings is very much a shared experience at the moment. Anxiety and stress is to be expected, but if we allow those emotions to get in the way of our recovery, they are not serving us well. So, be aware of how you are, what resources are available to you, and look after yourself really well.
Van Vugt et al, Investigating the impact of mindfulness meditation training on working memory: a mathematical modelling approach.2011 Sep;11(3):344-53. DOI: 10.3758/s13415-011-0048-8.
A Few Words From…
Nuno Albuquerque, Treatment Lead
The current Coronavirus crisis is without a doubt a frightening time for everyone, especially for those suffering with addiction who are in need of critical care and immediate treatment. This is why we are going to every length possible in order to remain open and to provide the same standard of care, trust, love and support deserved to everyone with addiction. Addiction won’t pause during the Coronavirus crisis, and neither will we.