How to Stay Sober During Quarantine, According to Addiction Experts
Coronavirus social distancing can put many people at risk of relapse from drug and alcohol addiction, but here are tips to avoid it.
Coronavirus, addiction, and relapse
Life was already tough pre-coronavirus for Caitlyn Wyly, 37, a mom of three in Michigan. At the beginning of 2020, she and her husband made the painful decision to end their 16-year marriage. They had just filed for divorce and began the legal proceedings to separate their assets when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Suddenly, a difficult time turned agonizing as she was now stuck at home with her soon-to-be-ex. She couldn't escape through any of her usual outlets like friends or yoga. But what's the one thing she could still turn to as a stress reliever during social distancing? Alcohol.
Wyly has been sober since June 18, 2017. Now, she says her nearly three years of sobriety is under daily threat thanks to the intense stress of coronavirus.
Coronavirus and the rise of alcohol and drug abuse
If Wyly's story sounds familiar, know you're not alone—many people are at risk for relapse or have already fallen back into drug or alcohol addiction during the coronavirus pandemic and quarantine, says Keith Heinzerling, MD, an internist and addiction medicine specialist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute and the medical director of the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine.
All over the country, alcohol sales are up as are reports of increased alcohol intake. People in some areas say they are drinking up to 50 percent more in quarantine than they normally would. That's not good news when there are some very compelling reasons to watch how much alcohol you drink during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Why quarantine is causing relapses
"People who have had prior issues with drugs or alcohol may be particularly susceptible to the potential negative effects of stress and isolation," Dr. Heinzerling says. "Indeed, we are seeing more and more people turning to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to escape from the stress of the current time, or to self-medicate feelings of anxiety or depression."
"My husband is on an emotional rollercoaster, impacting how I feel in my own home," says Wyly. "I am sleeping in the basement. I can never be alone. I can't go to my yoga studio anymore and my kids never leave the house. I own my own business and I have actually generated more business since the pandemic, but I have to homeschool my kids on top of it," she says. "There is a lot of stress and I just want to be numb."
Quarantine drinking culture
Another factor that may be tempting some to relapse into old habits is all of the memes, jokes, and social media posts encouraging people to use drugs and alcohol as a coping tool during the pandemic. Online posts about alcohol are up over 300 percent compared to this time last year, according to a survey done by Listen First Media, a company that converts social media data into metrics. "I have been floored by all of the encouragement around drinking," Wyly says. "Drinking is the solution to everything in our culture. Sad? Drink. Angry? Drink. Overwhelmed? Drink. Your kids are driving you crazy? Time for 'Mommy Juice!' Oh, you're drunk at noon? That's hilarious!"
There's also the fact that states have deemed liquor stores essential business and some allow for home delivery of booze and carryout cocktails. This adds an increased temptation to people already vulnerable to alcohol abuse, Dr. Heinzerling says.
How to avoid a relapse in quarantine
The urge to go back to prior addictions is understandable, but it's more important than ever to stay sober, Dr. Heinzerling says. "Avoiding alcohol and drug use will help to keep you and your immune system as healthy as possible to avoid or fight off infections," he says. Substance abuse is just one of the ways you sabotage your immune system.
This is especially true for Covid-19: Patients with an alcohol use disorder are at a higher risk of getting a respiratory illness and sustaining serious lung damage when they do get it, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Alcohol. This includes a two-to-four times greater risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome, the syndrome causing most of the deaths from the coronavirus.
It's worth it: Check out how getting sober saved one woman's life.
Reach out to family and friends
Loved ones provide a powerful reason to stay sober in normal times. They're invaluable during quarantine when you're likely feeling extra isolated and stressed. "Animals kept in isolation are more likely to press a lever to receive a dose of drug or alcohol than animals able to interact with other animals," Dr. Heinzerling says. "This is why it's so important to maintain your social connections; talk on the phone or video conference with family or friends daily." (Here's learn the difference between self-isolation and quarantine.)
Online support groups and therapy
Although in-person self-help meetings are not possible now, online meetings and support were already available from AA and SMART Recovery prior to the pandemic, and are a great option during this time of social distancing, Dr. Heinzerling says.
"I'm doing weekly telehealth counseling sessions with my counselor and attending online sobriety meetings," Wyly says. "The meetings are so helpful because these are all people who are in this same situation and understand the overwhelming desire to numb the tough feelings and take the edge off."
Keep to a set schedule
"Try to keep a regular schedule for going to bed and getting up, and use a calendar to schedule healthy activities, including exercise and meditation," Dr. Heinzerling says. Sticking to a schedule can help you stay busy, avoid falling back into bad habits, and give you things to look forward to.
Keep your mind and hands busy
"I advise my patients to avoid long stretches of idle time during which one's mind may begin to ruminate or focus on cravings," Dr. Heinzerling says. Find an all-engrossing quarantine-appropriate hobby, preferably one that keeps your minds and hands busy—like baking, doing a puzzle, playing an instrument, or working on a hobby, he says. Caution: Sitting in front of a screen doesn't count, as many people associate watching TV with drinking and it's all too easy to turn a Netflix binge into a drug or alcohol binge.
Roll out your yoga mat
Online yoga classes have been a key for Wyly in reducing stress and avoiding drinking. "Yoga provides some light exercise and meditation, both of which can help to relieve stress and cravings," Dr. Heinzerling says. Not a yogi? Any type of exercise you enjoy will help, the point is to find some way to be active every day, he says. Try yoga and these other online fitness classes right now.
Stay off social media
Social-distancing drinking memes are proliferating. "They have shown me how many people are caught in that gray area of drinking, they have a problem, but they either don't know it or don't want to admit it to themselves," Wyly says. Using social media to connect with others can be a good idea during quarantine—unless your feed is filled with pictures of people drinking or "it's wine-o-clock" memes. It's better to find more meaningful and personal ways to interact with people, like texting or calls, Dr. Heinzerling says.
You also benefit from these 13 positive things that happen when you quit social media.
Keep a positive perspective
A feeling of fatalism or hopelessness is a powerful reason to relapse so don't get sucked into that spiral of negative feelings and addictive behaviors, Dr. Heinzerling says. Wyly has managed to avoid drinking alcohol but admits she hasn't been perfect, using marijuana and prescribed Klonopin to take the edge off. "I feel like I've been on a slippery slope, but I keep reminding myself: There will be an end to the pandemic, I will get out of quarantine, I will feel better," Wyly says. "And in the meantime, I'm giving myself a lot of grace." Use these 13 tips from mental health professionals to stay positive during quarantine.
Have a safety plan
The safest option is to not use drugs or alcohol at all, but that may not be possible for everyone, Dr. Heinzerling says. "If you do choose to use, know that social distancing and isolation may increase the risk of fatal overdose, so it's important to have a safety plan," he says. This means not drinking or using drugs alone or if that's not an option, set up regular check-ins with friends, D. Heinzerling explains. If you use narcotics, you should keep Narcan handy (although it will require someone else to administer it to you in the case of a fatal overdose), he adds.
- Keith Heinzerling, MD, MPH, an internist and addiction medicine specialist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute and the medical director of the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine
- Wall Street Journal: "Coronavirus Closed the Bars. America Stocked the Liquor Cabinet"
- Axios: "Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Week 6: Too risky to go back to 'normal,"
- San Francisco Chronicle: "The Bay Area is Drinking 42% More Than Usual"
- Listen First Media: "Social Insights on Coronavirus"
- Alcohol: "Alcohol and Lung Injury and Immunity"