Addressing Coronavirus Stress and Relapse

We humans are wired with the gift of resilience to various degrees, that ability to withstand adversities and plow ahead to the other side.

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Coronavirus Stress and Relapse

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By Patty Bell, Interventionist, Solutions 4 Recovery

The level of resilience differs depending on each person’s unique temperament and personality traits, as well as our own life experiences and coping mechanisms. 

But… the coronavirus has thrown us all under the bus.

There is nothing like a global pandemic, with its invisible threat to our lives and livelihoods, to completely upend whatever coping skills and built-in resilience we might have had. But for the individual in addiction recovery, the negative effects of the coronavirus are significantly enhanced.

In what feels like the blink of an eye one of the most effective tools for maintaining sobriety, the in-person recovery meeting, just-poof!-vanished. That trusty stalwart that has been there for addicts in recovery, offering the physical connection to others winding through the recovery journey, just simply ended. Individuals who were accustomed to the fellowship and recovery support provided by the meetings were suddenly prohibited from meeting up in person.

Talk about stress-provoking!

The past nearly three months have shown us firsthand evidence of the dangers related to isolation and loneliness. Alcohol consumption has ratcheted skyward, and deaths of despair—namely suicide—now outpace Covid-19 death rates in some regions of the country. Kacey Hansen, at trauma nurse at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, CA states, “What I have seen recently, I have never seen before. I have never seen so much intentional injury.” Whether a person is in recovery or not, the punishing impact of this pandemic reaches across all socioeconomic distinctions, but hits certain people harder: namely the recovering addict.

With so much uncertainty about the course of the virus going forward, those of us working in the addiction recovery field are tasked with evolving our services to adapt to the unpredictable foe. Coronavirus stress, and the enhanced risk of relapse, are at a fever pitch. For addiction treatment specialists, finding ways to deliver the care and support that is deserved by individuals in recovery is an undeniable top priority.

How Coronavirus Stress Impacts Individuals in Recovery

People have an inherent need to feel they are in control of their lives. They like to wake up in the morning having some idea of what to expect their day to look like. Most people find that living life with a certain amount of routine or structure brings peace of mind. The Covid-19 crisis has thrown that sense of predictability out the window, hobbling us. Now we are tasked with going with the flow of events as they happen to us, rather than shaping events by our own purposeful actions.

Uncertainty is very stressful to most people, but can have a more pronounced effect on individuals in recovery. With no time to mentally prepare, many people who have been in the process of rebuilding their lives in recovery have found themselves suddenly unemployed due to no fault of their own. With government assistance trickling in at a snail’s pace, financial stress has become entrenched.

In addition to financial stress, the quarantine policies have also exacerbated relationship problems. If a dysfunctional relationship was already a triggering event for relapse, while in lockdown the effects of codependency, enabling, or constant interpersonal conflict can become unbearable.

Even boredom, a hallmark trait of sitting at home for the better part of three months, can spark a relapse. Boredom is one of the stressors that allow the disease to re-activate in the mind. Spending weeks on end stuck at home causes immense boredom, which can be a risk factor for relapse.

5 Ways to Manage Coronavirus Stress and Avoid Relapse

While most of us have been knocked down a few pegs by the impact of the pandemic, we humans are, thankfully, very resourceful. Identify a problem, address the problem, and find solutions to solve the problem. Containing the stress effects of the coronavirus will require some flexibility and imagination, but managing stress is not an option for someone in recovery. Here are 5 tips for regulating stress so relapse can be avoided:

  1. Tele-health services. If we had to have a pandemic, at least it came at a time in history when we have some pretty amazing video conferencing capabilities. Take full advantage of tele-health addiction support services, which include both individual and group psychotherapy. These secure sessions offer timely recovery care while the country is still in some phase of lockdown.
  2. Online recovery meetings. The next best thing to in-person meetings is the advent of Zoom 12-step or SMART Recovery meetings during the stay-at-home era. There are countless meetings to access online, providing the convenience of visiting a variety of groups from the comfort of your home. Reach out to the recovery communities daily, even hourly, for ongoing peer support.
  3. Stay active. Fortunately, even with stay-at-home policies in place we have been free to get outside for some exercise. Physical activity is one of the most effective stress relievers available to us, and it costs nothing. Create an exercise routine that involves some form of physical exertion each day, even if it is only 20-30 minutes. The natural chemical effects of movement and exercise can induce calm and curb stress.
  4. Use relaxation techniques. Again, technology to the rescue in the form of easily accessible and free tools that can help regulate stress naturally. Find some yoga classes on YouTube to experience the substantial mental health benefits right in your living room. Download mindfulness meditation apps or guided imagery sessions that assist you in achieving a peaceful state of mind.
  5. Stay connected to support system. In the end it is your personal support system, those close friends, a sponsor, a spouse or family member, who will be your best source of recovery support. Especially now during this unprecedented event, these individuals play an important role in guiding you through the bumps in the road that might threaten sobriety. Keep them close and stay in touch.

If you have experienced a relapse regardless of all your efforts, do not hesitate to reach out to your treatment provider for help. There are online intensive outpatient programs available, and residential rehabs have been retooled for additional safety during the pandemic.

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