Amid the call to quarantine and socially distance ourselves, those in recovery may be getting lost in the shuffle.
Why would that be? Continuous contact with sponsors and others in recovery through meetings is absolutely necessary, throughout recovery.
Yet, it’s not just social connection that is needed. The anxiety and stress over financial hardship due to the economy coming to a slamming halt, as well as the general unease of not knowing when this will end, should be addressed as well.
Let me say this first: This, too, shall pass.
This time will come to an end, just as the Great Recession of 2008, the terror of the September 11 attacks in 2001, and every war we’ve ever engaged in. Let’s just make sure that, when this time passes, it does so with your sobriety intact.
Understanding the Connection Between Anxiety, Stress & Addiction
Stress and anxiety are a part of everyone’s life.
When you encounter something that you feel is a threat – whether it be physical, mental, or emotional – you feel stressed. The anxiety that follows is a response to that stress.
Now, there is a good kind of stress. Stress that registers as moderate, lasting for a limited time only, can actually challenge us to perform at a higher level. However, chronic stress and the resulting anxiety can make you more susceptible to addiction and relapse.
Similarly, situational anxiety can be a friend and foe. There are times in life when the excitement of a new experience (a good stressor, such as a new job or relationship) brings on an anxiety (butterflies in the stomach, a heightened state of awareness) which allow us to be more focused and attentive to details. So in essence, no harm; no foul. It’s odd to think of anxiety as a positive, but our fight-or-flight response is based on it.
There are other times, though, when this exact same state is clouded with negative thoughts. At those times, the experience of stress and anxiety is very much fraught with tension, conflict, and even fear. Just like that, the positive aspects of anxiety evaporate.
Studies show that high-intensity, prolonged and unpredictable stressors lead to depression and increased risk for a host of negative effects (including catching the common cold and influenza), including developing addiction and slipping into relapse.
The coronavirus and the nation’s response to it checks all those boxes: It’s of the highest intensity – disrupting almost every aspect of our lives, from shutting down businesses, halting travel, and eliminating jobs to overwhelming the healthcare system and spurring panic buying, causing shortages of needed goods. It’s prolonged – as this has been happening for weeks and continues to unfold. It’s unpredictable – we don’t know when it will be over, what the final effects on our lives and economy will be, or if we will personally be affected by this virus.
If proper coping skills aren’t in place and utilized, stressful events can lead to impulsivity and an attempt to self-medicate through alcohol or drugs. Illicit substances do the job of soothing distress and regulating out-of-control emotions. Unfortunately, the more stressors in your life, the higher the chances of becoming addicted. Chronic stress can also cause us to:
- Become more impulsive, as the brain shifts into automatic mode
- Be unable to delay gratification, as the prefrontal cortex, involved in judgement and decision-making, is shut down
- Are even more unable to control our thoughts or the way we respond to stress, as the volume of the brain’s grey matter decreases
Obviously, we can’t delete stress for our lives. Stressful events will happen. It’s how we manage it that counts. More to the point, it’s how we interpret events, and then how we deal with it if we deem them to be negative.
Given all of this, what can we do to prevent relapse in this uncertain time?
There’s a good reason why anxiety is often referred to as “future tripping.” In its essence, anxiety is a thought – a feeling of tension, stress, or concern about something that hasn’t happened yet.
Unfortunately, no matter how skilled you are with grounding, mindfulness, or a yoga, anxiety can seep into your being unknowingly.
The coronavirus outbreak (and the non-stop, global coverage of it) is one of those events.
Still, COVID-19 is one of those things that we have a limited amount of control over.
Think of it this way: If a meteor was heading to earth, could you do something about it? No, you couldn’t. Even though the media may make it seem like an inevitable meteor is coming, we can only do our part to prepare ourselves and those we love… and hope for the best. The media isn’t infallible, after all.
So, what can you do? Shift your focus from playing out various scenarios of future events to action. Action is the antidote to anxiety.
COVID-19 isn’t a meteor, so what can you do?
Do your part and encourage others to do theirs.
Take basic universal precautions (washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, etc.), consume healthier, nutrition-packed food (giving your body what it needs to not only fuel your day, but your immune system as well), and minimize the possibility for contraction by maintaining a social distance of six feet and staying at home as much as possible.
Just as an aside, you need to know that you also have no control over what we call automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). For example, when my wife came down with the flu a few weeks ago, my first thought was, “Oh my goodness… she has the coronavirus!” Thankfully, it was not, but the automatic negative thoughts still came, as they have a habit of doing.
Let those ANTs come, and let them go. Just continue taking positive action. Action is the antidote to anxiety.
Continue take your vitamins. Boost your immune system. Eat healthy. Take universal precautions, and minimize your exposure risk… even wear a mask if you like. That’s all you can really do. Tell yourself that – you are doing all you can do – and let it go.
Service can also be an antidote to anxiety brought on by stress. Take a moment to remember others.
Is there someone you can help or reach out to? An elderly neighbor who needs groceries, perhaps? Can you sew surgical masks? How about buying coffee for that harried hospital worker, or leaving toilet paper at the door of someone in need? Can you call your sponsees?
In caring for others, we lose sight of our own problems, leaving anxiety in the dust.
Control Your Input
ANTs are uncontrollable; they just crop up uninvited. Exposure to social media, non-stop news, and the opinions of others, however, you do have some degree of control over. As much as possible, filter what you take in.
Yes, it may be necessary to stay updated on what is going on, but do you need to watch the news five hours a day?
It’s the same with social media. The constant sharing of bad news, as well as all those alcohol memes, can do you more harm than good right now. Take the experience of Tamara Raine. Sober for 660 days, she shared this with Infotel.ca:
“I have definitely felt triggered to drink during this time. Jokes about stocking up on alcohol are not funny to me and actually feel extremely hurtful,” she said. “I know what it is like to drink at home alone for days on end, and it is not what I would classify as ‘fun.'”
Right now it may be wise to follow a “block-and-hide”strategy. For example, do you have someone in your circle of Facebook friends that continually cranks out triggering material? Go ahead and snooze them for 30 days. You won’t see their posts, blocking their influence on you, and they won’t even know it.
If a post from someone else (not known to be offensive) crops up in your feed, catching you unaware and off-guard, use the “hide post” option so that at least you don’t see again.
On Instagram, no such features are available, There, it may be time to unfollow some, or just give that platform a break altogether.
In fact, you may want to limit all social media time, along with your news-viewing. Self-care is extremely important right now.
Reach Out for Support
Isolation plus fear can spell disaster, especially for those in early recovery.
Even the introverts among us need to feel socially connected. Think of this way: When social bonds are broken, we suffer from it just as much as if we were in physical pain. The suffering may feel different, but the affects are just as impactful. When this happens in childhood, it can lead to long-lasting problems. As scientist Matthew Lieberman told Scientific American:
“Languages around the world use pain language to express social pain (“she broke my heart,” “he hurt my feelings”), but this could have all just have been a metaphor. As it turns out it is more than a metaphor – social pain is real pain.
With respect to understanding human nature, I think this finding is pretty significant. The things that cause us to feel pain are things that are evolutionary recognized as threats to our survival, and the existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury.”
Thankfully, groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) host online meetings to help ease the pain. Here, you can reconnect with others who are also navigating their sobriety in a crazy, coronavirus world.
Hopefully, you have a sponsor. Stay in close contact with them. If you have a sponsee (or several), reach out to them as well on a regular basis. Also, the AA phone line is open 24/7 for anyone who’d like to speak with someone.
Another source of support could be the alumni group of the treatment center you have attended. You may even be able to re-establish connections with others who were at the treatment center the same time you were, as well as making new friendships.
While social media has it pitfalls, Facebook groups can be an incredibly positive source of inspiration and connection. You’ll find many options just by doing a simple search for a group that focuses on sobriety. You can even join more than one if you like. That way, you can receive positive reinforcement and connect with others who are also serious about remaining sober.
When This is Over, Don’t Stop
People who aren’t in recovery may not understand. They may think that getting sober solves all your problems. That’s not the case; staying sober requires continual effort. It may get easier over time, as new habits and sources of support are created and strengthened. But one thing is clear – it never ends. Recovery is a verb that you walk out every day; it is not a noun signifying a one-time event.
Here’s to getting through this challenging period, one day at a time.