July 20, 2021 Addiction

What Researchers Say About Substance Use Disorders and COVID-19

COVID-19 has changed the lives of billions of people in ways that have led to increased rates of substance use disorders and addiction. Researchers also state that those in recovery from substance use disorders tend to be more susceptible than others to COVID-19.

Continue reading to learn more about what researchers are saying about substance use disorders and COVID-19 and what you can do to keep you and your family safe from these serious health conditions.

How Has COVID-19 Contributed to Substance Use Disorders?

COVID-19 has triggered a wide range of acute and chronic stressors that have led to the development of millions of new cases of substance use disorders worldwide, according to a study released in Fall 2020 in the peer-reviewed journal Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy.

COVID-19-related stressors that have contributed to addiction include:

  • Long periods of home confinement
  • Quarantine
  • Isolation
  • Social distancing
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of becoming infected
  • Working from home
  • Financial hardship
  • Loss of employment
  • Loss of daily structure
  • Loss of purpose in life

According to the researchers who led the study, many in distress who are experiencing one or more stressors like those above take refuge in cheap, readily available addictive substances that help lessen their negative feelings. This behavior has triggered substance use disorders in both the general population and people in high-risk groups.

The number of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. has also risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that the rate of drug overdoses accelerated from November 2019 to October 2020, resulting in nearly 92,000 deaths, which is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in 12 months. Reasons for the rise in drug overdose deaths are similar to those listed above, as people have turned to addictive drugs to allay stressors and negative feelings.

Why Are Those in Recovery at Higher Risk for COVID-19?

Dr. Nora Volkow, psychiatrist, and director of the NIDA, reports that people who have had a substance use disorder at any point in their lifetime are approximately 1.5 times more likely than others to be diagnosed with COVID-19. She adds that people with an opioid use disorder are 2.4 times more likely to have COVID-19 than those without, people with cocaine use disorder are 1.6 times more likely, and people with alcohol use disorder are 1.4 times more likely.

Numerous factors contribute to a higher risk of COVID-19 among people with substance use disorders and those in recovery from substance use disorders. First, chronic drug and alcohol use lowers immunity and weakens the body in ways that increase vulnerability to infection.

Second, behaviors associated with alcohol abuse and illicit drug use such as needle-sharing and unsafe sex increase the risk of contracting infectious diseases. Additionally, people who suffer from substance abuse frequently interact with others face-to-face to obtain drugs, which heightens their risk for COVID-19 due to a lack of social distancing.

Social distancing and temporary or permanent closure of addiction treatment facilities are other factors that have put those in recovery at higher risk for COVID-19 and relapse. Many alumni patients who had relied on in-person counseling and support group meetings lost access to their preferred methods of support, especially those who lacked computers, tablets, and smartphones with video conferencing technology.

How Can Addiction Be Prevented in the Age of COVID-19?

COVID-19 has affected nearly everyone in one way or another. Stress is one of the most common triggers of substance use disorders and relapse, which is why it’s important to learn and practice healthy stress management techniques that don’t involve drugs and alcohol.

Addiction and relapse can be avoided during COVID-19, despite how difficult times may get. Dr. Anna Lembke, Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, says that developing healthy coping skills is key to staying sober, sane, and healthy during the age of COVID-19.

She recommends referring to an acronym using the word “SHELTER” to cope and to maintain a healthy daily structure.

  • Sleep. Go to bed at night and maintain a productive schedule during the day, even if not attending work or school. This helps avoid boredom and loneliness that may lead to drug and alcohol use.
  • Habitate. Make the house or living environment as clean and comfortable as possible given the extra time spent at home.
  • Exercise. Stay physically active, as regular exercise naturally reduces pain, anxiety, and depression.
  • Learn. Invest time into learning a new hobby or skill, such as a foreign language or cooking.
  • Temper. Do things in moderation, and try to avoid overdoing things like eating sweets or playing video games that significantly increase the brain’s dopamine (pleasure) levels.
  • Exhale. Understand that panicking about COVID-19 or the unknown is not productive or helpful for anyone.
  • Reflect. Consider your values to determine how to improve your life going forward, and be appreciative of the positive things in life.