As the nation gets more stringent about non-essential travel and bans on group gatherings to slow the spread of coronavirus, one expert says the pandemic may result in an unintended rise in drug and alcohol relapses among those who are in recovery.
Hulkow did not indicate how many relapses she had seen among clients, but according to the American Addiction Centers, over 19.7 million Americans aged 12 and older battled a substance use disorder in 2017. About 74 percent of those individuals reported an alcohol use disorder, while 38 percent reported an illicit drug use disorder. Of those individuals, 8.5 million reported a mental health disorder in addition to a substance use disorder.
Mental health professionals have recently been speaking out about different ways to cope with isolation and anxiety regarding COVID-19, which can also act as triggers for those in recovery, especially when coupled with canceled Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings.
“Social support and active involvement in the program both play a huge role in recovery,” Hulkow said. “In the absence of these, ‘isolation’ and ‘emotional distress’ can be significant ‘triggers’ to relapse. Feelings of depression, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, loneliness and boredom can easily escalate particularly during this time.”
But, Hulkow said, there are still ways to lessen the risk, even in the days of social distancing and quarantine.
“Recovering individuals can utilize different ‘tools’ to cope during this time such as: staying virtually engaged in the program, reading recovery-oriented literature, practicing prayer and meditation, engaging in healthy hobbies when possible, journaling thoughts and feelings, completing arts and crafts projects, being creative and staying present,” she said.
And for those who have limited access to smartphones or other technology, Hulkow pointed out that there are still helplines and hotlines available to offer support, as well as workbooks available that support recovery and are still used by AA and NA. Hulkow also advised turning to resources offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse for support.
She also added that those who are living with a person in recovery can help play a big role in supporting them.
“Supporters can contribute by creating a safe and healthy environment around the home; creating opportunities for open and honest communication, and actively listening,” she said, adding that setting and maintaining clear boundaries as well as staying alert to notice warning signs of a potential relapse can also help.
Potential signs can be different for every individual, cautioned Hulkow, but she added that it’s often close friends and family who are the first to notice subtle changes in behavior that could signal oncoming trouble. Typical signs can include a change in attitude, loss of daily structure, poor self-care, elevated stress, emotional reactivity, impulsive behavior, social isolation, and physical symptoms of either intoxication or withdrawal.
“The person in recovery can benefit from maintaining a structured routine as ‘normal’ as possible,” Hulkow advised, adding that staying virtually connective to support friends, family, sponsors or others in recovery can also play an important role in staying on track.
Maintaining a healthy diet and practicing self-care like getting regular exercise and adequate sleep can also help, as well as finding a healthy outlet to relieve stress.
“This is a significant challenge for individuals recovering from alcohol and drug addiction,” Hulkow said, of social distancing and isolation. “It is important to find alternative ways to receive ongoing support during this time. AA/NA and other support groups have ‘virtual meetings’ available online. There are also other options to stay connected via social media as well as by telephone or email.”