Managing addiction in isolation

Managing addiction to drugs and alcohol when you're in isolation

Key points about managing addiction in isolation

  • If you’re managing or recovering from addiction, being in isolation with COVID can mean coping with additional challenges.
  • People may have lost their usual forms of support with disruptions to counselling and treatment programmes.
  • It can be hard to resist using drugs and alcohol or other addictions to try and make yourself feel better. 
  • It’s important to get help if you or a loved one is struggling with any type of addiction (eg, drugs, alcohol, gambling, gaming and social media, work, pornography).
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Call 111 and ask for an ambulance immediately if somebody has these symptoms 
Signs of a drug overdose, alcohol poisoning or severe withdrawal may include:

  • Confusion.
  • Being unable to wake up.
  • Vomiting (throwing up) and seizures (fits).
  • Slow or irregular breathing.
  • Hypothermia (very low body temperature).
  • Bluish skin colour and/or paleness.

Addiction involves doing, taking or using something that you no longer have control over. This can continue even when you can see that your behaviour is harming you, or your whānau or friends. Anything you use a lot of or all the time (compulsively and obsessively) to ease tension or enhance your mood can become addictive. It could be an addiction to alcohol, tobacco, drugs or gambling, but it can also be working or studying excessively or harmful use of gaming and social media.

Read more about different types of addiction and the treatment available. 

Surveys have found that New Zealanders were more likely to use alcohol and cannabis during lockdown. Over this period there has been a significant increase in people reaching out for help with addictions and their mental health.

COVID-19 can affect anyone, but people who use substances are more at risk for problems.

  • The social nature of drug and alcohol use as well as the likelihood of sharing joints or drug equipment means that catching COVID is more likely.
  • COVID affects the lungs, which means it can be more serious for people who vape or smoke any drugs, including tobacco.
  • The THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in cannabis can affect the way the immune system fights infection making users more vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • Opioids and/or methamphetamine reduce immunity and can affect respiratory and lung health, and are also associated with a higher risk of heart disease.

Services have had to change the way they operate, and many are providing online and phone-based treatment. This can make it easier for some people to access treatment and support.

Some of the ways you can tell if you're are addicted to a substance or a behaviour are: 

  • Building up a tolerance or needing more of a substance to get the desired effect.
  • Having increased cravings or urges for the substance.
  • Increased use, even though it results in issues at home, school, or work – or it negatively affects your mental or physical health.
  • Missing events or activities due to substance use.
  • Wanting to stop or reduce your substance use, but not being able to do so on your own.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if you go without the substance for an extended period.

But you don’t need to have any or all of these signs to have a problem. If you're concerned about any addictive behaviours, the following tips will help you start to do something about it.

Get help

Recovery is hard to do alone. You are much more likely to succeed with support. There are many free professional supports and resources, including online so you can get help as soon as you are ready.  Check out the resource options at the bottom of the page.

Reach out to others

If you have a support system, now is the time to use it. Your friends and whānau don’t have to understand addiction recovery (get professional support for that) but you'll need their strength and connection to succeed. It's very tempting to isolate when you're struggling.

Read more about staying connected. 

Things are not as easy if all your social connections are using. You'll need to reach out more widely to get the support you need. 

Don't worry about being judged

One of the main things that stops people seeking help with their addiction is the worry they will come up against judgement or discrimination. 1 in 5 of us drinks in a way that is problematic and 12% of us will experience a substance abuse disorder in our lifetime). It's also no longer a shameful secret and it's becoming more regularly acknowledged as brave to seek help.  

Figure out what worked before

If you were able to manage your addiction before COVID 19, think about what worked for you then and see what you can still put into place.

If you have attended an addiction treatment programme, think about the recovery plan you made when you were discharged from treatment, which parts are still workable and which parts need to change with these new circumstances.

If your substance use has only become problematic with COVID-19, think about the things you used to do before that generally kept you well. 

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Reduce your access to drugs and alcohol

COVID is forcing us to be at home more than usual. Keeping your environment alcohol and drug free and making it harder to access alcohol and drugs will help you avoid a relapse. If you're living with people who use, ask them to keep their alcohol and drugs separate and hidden from you.

Be wary of swapping one addiction for another

It's known as cross addiction when you substitute one form of addictive behaviour for another. The stress of COVID-19 combined with the extra time spent at home or alone has meant this is a very real risk. If you're worried but not sure, it's probably an issue. Get help for cross addiction as quickly as you can.

Find ways to reduce stress

Stress and addiction go hand in hand. These tips for reducing stress will help. 

Identify your triggers

HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired)

Stressful times mean we are all triggered more easily. Figure out the things that spark your desire to use and put a plan in place to manage them. Some of the most common relapse triggers are when we are hungry, angry, lonely and/or tired. Other common COVID-19 triggers include boredom and frustration. Prepare in advance for what you'll do instead of drinking or doing drugs when you feel these emotions.

Get outside

Spending time outside, and particularly in nature, is proven to improve mood and reduce stress. Mental health and substance abuse issues are linked. Anything that helps you feel better will help you manage your addiction and nourish your wairua (spirit). 

Image credit: 123rf

Caring for yourself (self-care)

Self-care has been called one of the most overlooked aspects of recovery. People with addiction issues usually struggle to prioritise this. Instead, they often manage their difficult feelings with alcohol or drugs. Self-care could include taking time out, exercising, eating healthy food and spending time with friends.

Get better sleep

Sleep helps in so many ways. These sleep tips will help you make it a priority.

Alcohol and depression

It's important to know there is a strong link between alcohol and depression. People assume that alcohol will relieve stress and anxiety and make them feel good, but this is very temporary. In fact, alcohol increases the symptoms of anxiety and depression and, if you are at risk, or could lead to binge drinking. The more you believe that alcohol is useful as a coping mechanism, the greater your risk of developing a substance use disorder. Read more about alcohol and mental health.

Social media

Social media is generally not good for mental health and can sometimes be a substitute for another addictive behaviour. Take care with the amount and quality of social media you engage with. Recovery is a very vulnerable time and, although social media is very tempting, too much scrolling can cause you to feel low, which increases your risk of relapse.

Relapses happen

Recovery can be a life-long process. The stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 makes people especially vulnerable. A relapse doesn’t mean that recovery is impossible. It's simply a bump in the road. Don't blame yourself or someone else if a relapse occurs. The pandemic has been an upheaval for everyone. 

It's best for you to look for ways to reduce the risk to yourself and those around you. The NZ Drug Foundation makes these suggestions:

  • Know what to expect from the substance you are taking. This is not a good time to experiment.   
  • Measure your dose, use a smaller amount to start, and wait at least an hour before using more. Avoid using multiple substances as this increases the risk of overdose.
  • Make an overdose plan if you're using around other people. Stagger use if possible, so at least one person can respond in an emergency. 

Coping with an addiction is difficult and is so much harder when your life, and the life of those around you, is in turmoil. You need to know there's non-judgemental help available. Here are some resources you can call on if you need some help, advice or just a friendly understanding person to talk to.

Alcohol and drug helpline(external link)(external link) 0800 787 797 or text 8681
Alcohol and drug helpline advice and referral to kaupapa Māori services 0800 787 797
Alcohol and drug helpline advice and referral to Pasifika services 0800 787 799
Alcohol and drug helpline advice and referral for young people/rangitahi 0800 787 984
Community Alcohol and Drug Service (CADS)(external link)(external link) is a counselling service available throughout Auckland with a service specifically for people aged 13–19 years and their whānau. A rainbow communities' clinician is available.
The New Zealand Drug Foundation(external link)(external link) information on how to help friends and whānau and advice on harm reduction for various drugs common in New Zealand
The Level(external link)(external link) provides a short guide to COVID-19 and drugs
Gambling helpline 0800654 655 or free text 8006
Tips for safer drinking during COVID-19(external link)(external link) University of Victoria, Canada, 2020
Tips for safer drug use during COVID-19(external link)(external link) Toronto Public Health, Canada, 2020

Find a mental health and addiction service in your area.

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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

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