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Don’t let unhealthy coping lead to a substance use disorder

In isolation, what used to be one beer at the end of the day could morph into a mid-afternoon activity to cope


April 24, 2020
By Bill Howatt and Troy Winters

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Photo: tommaso79/iStock/Getty

A recent poll conducted by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction with Nanos Research found that 18 per cent of respondents who are now staying home because of COVID-19 are drinking more. The reasons are varied, but not surprising.

They include lack of a regular schedule (51 per cent), boredom (49 per cent), stress (44 per cent) and loneliness (19 per cent).

Women (57 per cent) were more likely than men (32 per cent) to cite stress as a reason for consuming more alcohol, while men were more likely to cite boredom (54 per cent; 44 per cent women). Liquor and cannabis stores across the country are reporting dramatic increases in sales numbers since social isolation started.

Anxiety over COVID-19, the pandemic’s economic impact and isolation all increase stress.

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Ineffective coping strategies and a dependency on drugs or alcohol to feel better can increase one’s risk profile for substance misuse and abuse.

In addition, individuals in recovery who are not following their treatment plan can be at increased risk for relapse. Stress and addictive behaviours go hand-in-hand. With substance, use it’s common for self-denial and cognitive dissonance to justify use, which can result in increased frequency, duration and intensity that lead to habit-forming behaviour and even substance use disorders.

The line between work and home is becoming confusing for some.

What was meant to be only one beer to unwind after a long day at work somehow has become a mid-afternoon activity to relax or perhaps cope.

The challenge with any drug is tolerance. If one drink provided some tension relief, then two are better, and so on.

Substance misuse can lead to significant health concerns beyond substance use disorders. Chronic abuse of alcohol can increase risk for anxiety, stroke, dementia, depression, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as cancer of the mouth, throat, breast, colon and liver. It can also lower the immune system and make it harder to fight off COVID-19 should you become infected.

The risk for society is that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to get access to addiction resources and supervised injection sites, and overdose prevention sites for opioids are limiting hours, or in some cases are closed.

Happiness versus pleasure

Saying “no” to the instant gratification of consuming a substance of choice such as cannabis or alcohol to alter your mood can be a challenge. While short-term feelings of pleasure can bring an illusion of happiness, if you only experience happiness or relaxation when you use a substance, this is a sign you may be at risk.

If you or another person is concerned about your use of drugs or alcohol or gambling, consider completing the free, online DAGS Screening Tool. On completion you will receive a confidential report indicating your level of risk and providing recommendations for your consideration.

Managing your weekly consumption of alcohol and other substances

If you’re concerned about your consumption and use of alcohol or drugs, consider the following options to mitigate your risk:

  • Track every time you consume. Most people don’t take full account of all the times they consume. Listing every drink, every toke, etc. in one place will show the big picture.
  • Plan activities ahead of time. Consider how you will avoid consuming by setting a limit and sticking to it.
  • Identify triggers. Pinpoint circumstances that lead to feeling you need to consume to cope, and explore options to avoid them.
  • Leverage peer support. Having a peer you can talk to about your concern is helpful for providing support and holding you accountable.
  • Don’t stop heavy alcohol use without supervision. If you’re concerned about your drinking, don’t stop without medical supervision, as it can be life-threatening. At the very least, seek medical guidance to evaluate your risk.
  • Seek support. If you’re concerned about your substance use, contact your employee and family assistance representative, local mental health addiction services or medical doctor. If in crisis, leverage crisis lines and 911.

Harm Reduction

Drinking has become a socialized and normalized activity in Canada. While many may have been taught about abstinence programs, they have never been taught how to reduce their risk of consuming alcohol. Those who choose to consume alcohol might not be aware of all the short- and long-term health risks.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction recommends limiting daily drinking to three standard drinks for males and two for females, with planned days off. For more information on reducing your risk of drinking, take their quiz or read their Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines.

Being in a pandemic is new for all of us, and how we cope matters. If you use substances as a go-to way to cope, be careful, and understand that substance use disorders can slip up on you.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR. For more information see https://www.howatthr.com. Troy Winters is the senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ottawa. For more information, visit https://cupe.ca/