Substance use and mental health during Covid19
Covid-19 has highlighted how our actions impact ourselves and the people around us. It’s helpful to consider how the use of alcohol and drugs can influence and impact our ability to cope with this situation.
Life was tough enough, and Covid-19 can make everything seem harder. Faced with challenging circumstances, alcohol and drugs can seem like a way to cope. We may feel they will help us escape the uncertainty of this pandemic.
Both the Covid-19 situation and substances can impact mental health, so inform yourself as much as possible to make the right decisions for you.
Reasons for using substances during Covid-19
- Covid-19 has created a lot of uncertainty in our lives that many of us find difficult to sit with. Getting high or drunk can feel like a way to escape this.
- Anxiety naturally produces a fight, flight, or freeze response that can make us feel uncomfortable both in our bodies and with our thoughts. Alcohol or drugs can seem like a reasonable response to help calm this.
- Media stories have shown how anxiety has led to panic buying. This is likely because it help us to feel more in control to focus on the problems that we can fix. This type of impulsive response to the situation can also be seen with substance use.
- With the limited social contact and outlets, as well as increased hours indoors, it simply might seem like there’s nothing else to do.
Using intoxicants while alone may actually increase the likelihood of over doing it
You may already be aware of the links between alcohol and mental health. However, hangovers have the potential to make the anxiety and low mood that many are already experiencing from Covid-19, worse.
With the prospect of extended social isolation, we might think “sure it makes no difference, I’ll have one more.” Using intoxicants while alone may actually increase the likelihood of over doing it. Without friends to provide support or supervise, the chances of risky behaviours increases. This could include going against the HSE Covid-19 guidelines, or driving under the influence.
Starting an unhealthy cycle
Substance use can lead to feelings of shame, guilt or denial. With the current Covid-19 circumstances, we may be left alone to deal with these heavy emotions. You may feel trapped, and in an effort to manage these unwanted feelings, use more substances. This starts a cycle of unhealthy substance use which can be difficult to break.
The more you use any substance to help you cope, the more likely you are to start turning to that substance ahead of other coping strategies. The longer alcohol or drugs are used, the more tolerance we build, meaning we need to take more of the substance to feel the same effects. There is also the chance of developing an addiction, when we need to take the substance to “feel OK” or get on with the day.
Which needs are met through substance use and can these needs be met in other ways?
What is your relationship with substances?
Reflect on your relationship with the substances you’re using. Think about why you take them. Is it to feel temporary relief? Do you believe it helps you feel more comfortable in social situations? Is to alleviate boredom? Or does taking substances help cope with the feelings created by the Covid-19 pandemic?
None of these are unusual relationships with substances. But think about is which needs are met through substance use. Can these needs be met in other ways? For example:
- If you want relief, could talking with friends, doing exercise or art help?
- If you feel anxious socially, can you use apps like houseparty or jackbox to hang out with friends through a common game?
- If you’re bored, what activities or interests can you add to your routine?
- If you’re feeling stressed, what coping skills have you used before that have helped with this feeling?
Fortunately, there are ways to cope with the stress of this situation which don’t involve substances.
Any substance that can have a negative impact on your mental health and may also compromise your physical health. If you are going to drink or use substances during Covid-19 pandemic, consider using a harm-reduction approach. This includes practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with substance use. Examples of harm reduction are:
- Eat before taking substances
- Don’t “bulk buy” alcohol or drugs to limit intake
- Only use substances in a safe environment
- Clean and disinfect drug paraphernalia before each use
- Do not use substances if taking care of someone else
- Alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
If you feel that substance use is creating difficulties for you, the HSE Drugs and Alcohol Helpline provides support and information. Their number is 1800 459 459.