It’s important to recognize that the isolation we’re practicing right now is entirely different from the isolation caused by addiction.
Addiction professionals say that relapse rates could increase this year as people experience stress over coronavirus and as recovery supports like 12-step meetings are upended amid social distancing.
“The 24-hour news cycle constantly covering the worst parts of this current health crisis can bring about anxiety, stress and worry and possibly trigger a relapse,” says Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer at American Addiction Centers. “For those in recovery, compounded with mandated social distancing, it may be too much.”
Although the risk of relapse is real, this is also a time that the recovery community can shine. People in recovery are used to overcoming challenging circumstances and adapting to new routines, which will be important for everyone.
“This is a moment when nothing is more important than all of us sticking together to walk through this challenge,” says William C. Moyers, the vice president of public affairs and community relations at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, who has been in recovery for 30 years.
Recognize that social isolation is different from the isolation caused by addiction
Addiction is a disease that thrives in isolation. So, it’s not surprising that many people in recovery might be triggered by social distancing and staying home. Yet, it’s important to recognize that the isolation we’re practicing right now is entirely different from the isolation caused by addiction.
“A big component of isolation in addiction is stigma and shame,” Moyers says. The physical isolation during social distancing is a lot less powerful then the deep-seated isolation brought on by feeling ashamed about your substance abuse. Honesty, openness, connection and commitment — the cornerstones of recovery — will help keep you from feeling isolated, even when you’re stuck at home.
While the isolation caused by addiction can be detrimental, the isolation from social distancing will save lives, Weinstein says. Focusing on that can help you stay positive and feel connected with others who are also sacrificing.
“The isolation that can be felt during social distancing can be reframed as a temporary measure for the greater good of our community and the most vulnerable among us,” Weinstein says.
Take steps to stay connected
When you’re stuck at home, it can be easy to withdraw. To combat that, now is the time to consciously reach out to the people in your recovery community.
“This pandemic is not an excuse to disconnect,” Moyers says.
Digital meetings and substance abuse hotlines are more available than ever right now, so there’s no excuse for not keeping connected to your recovery support systems.
“Just because you need to isolate physically, doesn’t mean you have to do it emotionally,” says Asher Gottesman, a recovery professional and podcast host.
Checking in with a recovery group or even calling individuals you care about is more important than ever. In a moment of crisis or weakness, picking up the phone can be lifesaving.
Maintain routine and make a recovery plan
Right now, things feel out of control. You can reclaim a bit of control by making a routine for your day-to-day activities and for maintaining your recovery during this time.
“As a counterbalance to a great deal of change, a routine can act as an anchor,” Weinstein says.
You don’t have to adhere to a strict schedule, but a loose routine can add structure to your day.
At the same time, reach out to your healthcare providers to discuss how you’ll get care during the coronavirus outbreak. This is especially important for people who are getting medication-assisted treatment, which should continue during the outbreak.
Shuhan He, MD, an emergency physician at Mass General Hospital in Boston, emphasizes that hospitals — even emergency rooms — are still open and eager to help people with substance abuse disorder.
“We’re here for you and we want to ensure that you have the resources that you need to continue on the road to recovery,” He says. “One of the reasons why we emphasize social distancing and flattening the curve so much in social media and public messaging channels is that we never lose the capacity to care for those in need, especially with addiction. It’s important that people feel that they can come to us for anything they need.”
In non-emergency situations, you might even find that it’s easier than ever to connect with healthcare professionals like counselors digitally. The federal government has relaxed HIPAA regulations to make delivering telemedicine easier during this time, for example.
“It’s actually an incredible time for innovation in healthcare,” he says.
Lean on your recovery lessons
People in recovery have experience taking challenges one day at a time and letting go of things that they cannot control. Lessons like those are critical during the emergency response to coronavirus.
“Learning how to take life one day at a time, especially now, can be grounding and alleviate stress,” Weinstein says. “Accepting the things you cannot control is another lesson that people can draw on during this time.”
You can also change the things you can — like how much exposure you allow yourself to social media and the news.
“The news cycle, the effects of coronavirus, etc., are completely outside of our control, and it’s important to accept that,” Weinstein says. “The only thing that can be controlled are the actions and reactions taken in response to new information.”
Sometimes, taking a social media break is a good way to control anxiety, Moyers says.
“Social media tends to heighten and intensify the experience and the event and thus the emotions,” he says.
As you navigate through the uncertainty of the coming weeks and months, remember that now is the time to lean in to your recovery practices, not let them slip.
“Addiction is an illness that loves to latch on to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” Moyers says. “This is one of those moments when people in recovery can feel vulnerable.”
Staying connected virtually to the millions of people who are also navigating coronavirus in recovery can help keep everyone safe from relapse.
“Community may be looking different for the moment, but it’s still community,” Moyers says. “People in recovery stick together through thick and thin. Nothing defeats addiction more effectively than community.”