More people are turning to substances to cope with the added stress and negative feelings caused by the pandemic.

Your Health, Coronavirus Updates | 3 months ago

Pandemic Addiction: Causes and Coping Strategies

More people are turning to substances to cope with the added stress and negative feelings caused by the pandemic. To raise awareness, Atrium Health addiction medicine experts explain the underlying issues of pandemic addiction and where to find support.

COVID-19 has taken a serious toll on mental health. With anxiety and depression on the rise, more people are turning to substances, including opioids, alcohol and other stimulants, to cope. Consider the following facts:

What stressors and negative feelings are influencing pandemic addiction? How does home isolation play a role? Where can you find recovery support? Matt Orlousky, manager of Atrium Health Addiction Services, and Stephanie Newby, MD, addiction psychiatrist at Atrium Health, share some helpful insights with a focus on hope.

New stressors

The main reason for the increase in substance use is that many are coping with a variety of new stressors, including dealing with financial problems, working from home and having children at home for virtual school. Some have turned to substances to relieve the ongoing stress and added responsibilities caused by these situations.

“We have seen increases especially with alcohol use throughout the pandemic,” noted Orlousky. “Last March, life was turned upside down for many. Some who previously enjoyed a healthy relationship with alcohol (i.e., a drink or 2 while socializing with friends on a day off) have shifted to drinking as a means of coping with the day. This is the hallmark of dysfunctional use, no matter the quantity of the substance.”

Negative emotions

The pandemic has also intensified stress and negative emotions, especially fear. “People are coping with fear of infection, severe illness, death of self or loved ones and loss of employment and housing – among others,” Dr. Newby revealed.

What about the sources of social support that typically help people manage negative feelings? “Social support structures, such as churches and community gatherings, ended abruptly, giving us fewer opportunities to reach out to others for help,” said Dr. Newby. “Given these circumstances, the acceleration of the development of substance use disorders is not surprising.”

Home isolation

Since more people are staying home, it’s much easier to access substances throughout the day and away from others. “What may have started out as a glass of wine on the weekend can easily become a glass of wine each night to wind down after a stressful day with the kids,” Orlousky explained. “Then, suddenly, a person may start drinking while working remotely. Once it starts, it can be a slippery slope.”

Although people can start using substances more during any type of stressful situation, the pandemic is unique. “We have been told to isolate for our safety, though substance use disorders are, at their core, diseases of isolation,” Orlousky said. “The best possible treatment is to get involved in a recovery program with other sober people. Fortunately, several recovery programs offer virtual meetings to keep everyone safe while providing support.”

Follow-up care

“Treatment of addictive disorders has dramatically improved over the last decade,” said Dr. Newby. “There are scientifically proven medications that reduce the power of this neural circuitry and improve the success rates of long-term sobriety.”

“If you’re struggling, call a treatment center for help,” Orlousky encouraged. “Remember that there is hope. Recovery works. We are ready to give you the help you need when you need it.”

  • For intensive outpatient services, call 704-446-0391 (Atrium Health Addiction Services - Ballantyne) or 704-344-3290 (Atrium Health Addiction Services - Charlotte). 
  • For inpatient detox services, call 704-304-5248 (Atrium Health Mercy). Assessments are available over the phone.
  • For 24/7 mental health crisis assistance, call Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line at 704-444-2400