“Lockdown”, “social distancing”, “self-isolating”. The lexicon of the COVID-19 pandemic is now all too unhappily familiar. But how do you cope during this period if you are in recovery from addiction? While the severely restrictive measures are intended to keep people safe, isolation and disconnection are symptomatic of addiction and risk factors for relapse. Conversely, sustained participation in positive social networks has been found to aid recovery.
How people in recovery cope with the strictures imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19 will depend upon various factors: such as how long someone has been in recovery, any other current health issues, as well as the quality of their immediate circumstances. People suffering additionally with a significant mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety, may struggle more than others. They not only have to contend with the curtailment of normal social activity, including possibly work or education, they will be doing so in the context of a real threat to health and even life. Those who have been alcohol dependent, have been or remain smokers, have used opioids or methamphetamines or have an underlying physical condition will be at increased risk.
To a greater or lesser degree, the enforced isolation brought on by COVID-19 will be stressful for everyone. However, people recovering from addiction, particularly in the early stages will be psychologically vulnerable. Social distancing may lead to turning inward, with a loss of motivation and purpose, even paralysis. People may become bored, a propensity that afflicts many addicted people. They may become restless and agitated with sleep patterns disturbed. They may become distressed if compelled to be locked down with family where any pre-existing strains in relationships may be intensified. The real danger for people in recovery is turning again, as a means of coping, to the substances or behaviours through which their addiction developed, including those facilitated by the internet. With other avenues closed to them, the online world will offer a range of both positive and negative opportunities.
So what can be done? The first thing is to avoid drifting into a mindless state. It is a time to step back and reflect before developing a personal plan that has daily structure with flexibility built in. This should include some activities that are stimulating and others that are relaxing; both rewarding. It should also include health-promoting approaches based on the principles of recovery, especially when dealing with inevitable emotional swings. “One day at a time” is a useful mantra during the COVID-19 lockdown while anything that smacks of a quick fix should be avoided. Practicing mindfulness will help while avoiding whatever fosters negativity. However limited the space, it is important to organise some way to take exercise that gets the heart and lungs going. It will be a time to discover or rediscover interests, begin or continue learning. It will be important to add in some real fun.Perhaps the most important thing during the social distancing required to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to stay connected to others, especially to those who understand the realities of addiction and the challenges of recovery. This is where online communication comes into its own and there is evidence of increasingly imaginative ways for people to communicate one to one or in groups over the internet and so gain vital support. There will be many positives to be drawn from surviving the experience, among which will be a sense of achievement, increased resilience, self-knowledge and self-esteem.