The coronavirus pandemic has shaken the world and left many stressful consequences in its wake. Suddenly, self-medication has become the thing to do. We have to manage our fear of infection alongside fear of an uncertain future. The global lockdown disrupted our routines and invoked widespread boredom, loneliness and anxiety. On top of all that, we face highly challenging societal issues. Job insecurity and economic loss continue to increase as our global recession worsens. As a result, it is entirely normal to feel stressed out right now.
In small doses, stress is an evolutionary asset. It sharpens our focus and our attention and boosts our immune system. However, if prolonged, it wears us out and weakens our ability to fight physical and emotional battles. When feeling exhausted-but-wired at the same time, self-medication can sound appealing as a way to block out the side effects of chronic stress. When this happens, we might crave junk food, cigarettes, caffeine or alcohol for the short-term relief they offer.
However, when we self-medicate, we are using an external substance to numb an internal emotion. When we numb ourselves to feelings, we do not deal with them. As a result, we exacerbate the stress in the long term. If we do this over an extended period, we weaken our brain’s ability to self-regulate. We can become increasingly dependent on an external substance to feel calm. As a result, we sow the seeds for hard-to-break habits and potential addiction.
Here’s how to try to break the self-medication cycle:
Find a purpose for each day
To navigate stress-induced self-medication, we need to find other ways to cope with Covid-19 related stress. Try to re-frame your perspective and see this period of uncertainty as an opportunity for growth.
Try to find a purpose for each day. However, don’t let this be a way of adding more pressure on yourself; a purpose will only decrease our stress if it is an achievable goal. For instance, exercise, practice mindfulness, read a book, watch your favorite movie, or learn a new recipe. It can even be something as seemingly banal as “looking at the birds.”
Understand your triggers
If you think you are self-medicating, try to observe your thought patterns and work out which emotions trigger this coping mechanism. Once found, try to engage with the thought or feeling. For instance, if fear triggers the urge to self-medicate, ask yourself, why do I feel afraid? What would happen if my fear came true? When we confront our feelings, it can help us feel more in control.
Then, when these feelings arise, try to find a healthier coping mechanism. For example, do you eat more when you are lonely? Next time that urge to self-medicate arises, call a loved one. If it is boredom, try to start a new hobby or rekindle an old passion.
Show compassion to yourself and others
Loneliness, boredom and anxiety sometimes come as a package. When these emotions hit, they can be overwhelming and increase our chances of relying on substances, such as food or cigarettes, as a way to navigate them. When this happens, reach out and call a friend or family member. Communicate openly about how you are feeling and try to listen to their issues with the same openness.
Acts of altruism are a great way to ease our negative feelings. It need not be anything grandiose, either. An act of kindness can be as simple as calling your grandparents or reaching out to someone you know is alone right now.
As we move into the second phase of the pandemic, there might be more stress added to our lives. To ensure that our mental and physical health is as robust as it can be, we must be mindful of any harmful coping mechanisms – such as self-medication – that we may have taken on while in self-isolation.
- Dr. Marta Ra is CEO of Paracelsus Recovery addiction and mental health service.