Since COVID-19 began changing life as we all know it, therapists and addiction counselors all over the country are starting to see more and more people turning to drugs, alcohol and addictive behaviors to cope during this time of increased fear, stress, isolation, and uncertainty. We are also seeing an unfortunate uptick in the relapse rates of people in recovery from various addictions. We are seeing this with alcohol (the sale of which has spiked dramatically in recent weeks), prescription drugs, street drugs, sex addictions (especially porn addiction), and gaming addictions. Just among the clients I meet with via online therapy in the last two weeks, I’ve seen three relapses.
Why is This Happening?
To those of us in the fields of mental health and addiction, this is all sadly predictable. All of the uncomfortable and unpleasant facets of life during this pandemic contribute to addiction and relapse: Isolation, lack of structure, fear, and uncertainty, and hopelessness.
Isolation and Loneliness
Many in the recovery community or in the addiction field see a dramatic connection between isolation and addiction. A great deal of clinical research has shown for many years that connecting with other people is a crucial part of the treatment of addiction (along with many other mental health issues). This is partly why fellowships like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Smart Recovery are so helpful for people with addictions. It’s also why a crucial piece of the treatment in any rehab program is group therapy. There is something uniquely therapeutic about being part of a group that is struggling with the same thing you’re struggling with. So now that we all must social distance, connecting is either impossible or severely limited. In isolation, it’s easier than ever before to engage in unhealthy behaviors or to fall back into them.
The loneliness that comes with the isolation of COVID-19 is incredibly difficult and dangerous in regard to addiction. 12-step recovery programs consider loneliness so dangerous to addicts that it’s part of the well-known H.A.L.T. acronym. H.A.L.T. refers to the feelings most likely to lead to relapse: hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness. Nearly every online therapy client I’ve met with in the last two weeks has acknowledged feeling lonely, even those who are isolating at home with their spouse and children.
Lack of Structure
The lack of structure most of us are suddenly faced with is another piece of this puzzle. Addiction counselors are very clear that structure is an important part of any addict’s recovery. Having unstructured time on one’s hands is a recipe for addicts to relapse or for people to develop addictions. The biblical proverb “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop” (often said as “the Devil finds work for idle hands’) applies to most of us, addicts and alcoholics in particular. For many of us, the structure that helped us stay healthy or sober or to keep our potentially unhealthy behaviors in balance has either disappeared completely or been altered dramatically. And the structure that many found in going to 12-step meetings or other support fellowships now can only occur in an online format.
We Want to Avoid Uncomfortable Feelings
The feelings we all are experiencing to differing extents (fear, sadness, grief, hopelessness, shame, anxiety) are all unpleasant and it’s very natural to want to avoid them. So it makes sense that more of us are turning to substances or behaviors that provide an escape or relief. For some, this is turning into legitimate addiction. For those in recovery, there’s an even greater risk of relapse as these feelings are painful. These are very frightening times with a level of uncertainty most of us have never lived through. It’s easier than ever before to use rationalization in the form of “it doesn’t matter anyway” to justify self-medication or relapse.
Online Therapy Can Help
The harsh truth is that help is more difficult to find now. But online therapy, which is now how all therapists and addiction counselors are meeting with their clients can actually help. Online counseling reduces the sense of isolation because it allows you to connect with your therapist. Online therapy provides some of the structure we all need in the form of a weekly (or even twice weekly) scheduled meeting. For addicts in particular, online therapy provides some sense of accountability. And having someone objective (and who you don’t have to worry about burdening) can help you unload some of the fear and uncertainty. Online counseling also can help you express or vent the feelings you have been avoiding, which actually reduces the degree to which you will feel them. The more you verbalize your feelings, the less they cause you pain.
For more information, visit my Online Therapy page.
Feel free to contact me with any questions.