The mind of a recovering addict inevitably wanders to some pretty dark places. That dark path becomes steeper without the reassuring anchors of friends, the fellowship, counselors, or some other support network to provide a frame of reference for addiction’s self-destructive thought patterns. This is quite problematic when looking at the current government-mandated social distancing that many people face with the coronavirus threat. Handling isolation and anxiety during quarantine becomes a very dangerous relapse risk if not managed with the proper tools.
The Anxiety Paradox
Recovering addicts who experience high levels of anxiety tend to be quite self-aware of the problem. We are inundated today with advice about how destructive anxiety is for our well being; but while that incomplete nugget of wisdom has some truth to it, it ironically becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worrying about one’s own anxiety creates even higher levels of anxiety, and why would we expect any different? For recovering addicts it can be even worse because rehab underlines how disordered thinking drives addictive behaviors.
This nasty cycle is the anxiety paradox. Putting a lens on one’s own anxiety without any subtext just begets more of the same: you worry about how much you worry. And so it spirals downward. But the trick to handling isolation and anxiety during quarantine is not to just look at the issue. Embrace it. Give validation to your feelings of worry because let’s face it—we’re experiencing an extraordinary moment in history. Pandemics like COVID-19 come about once in a generation. So what does it mean to embrace anxiety in an emotionally constructive way?
Disordered Thought Patterns Don’t Need to Lead to Relapse
Even if recovering addicts are prone to higher levels of anxiety than the average person, the mind is just running through deeply embedded neural pathways that are not going to shift overnight. Ideally, addicts and alcoholics in recovery can access the external psychological tools imparted through rehab to address anxiety before it becomes toxic. These resources usually come from other humans who can help provide perspective; however, currently those humans pose a disease risk. So the onus shifts onto the individual to practice using those tools.
Tools to Handle Isolation and Anxiety During Quarantine
#1 Play the tape.
This is one of the first tools rehab imparts. When cravings start to hit, it’s recommended that recovering addicts and alcoholics develop their obsessive thoughts to their realistic, inevitable ends. It may seem tempting to take that first hit to relieve anxiety, but one slip up becomes two, doses increase, and eventually you’re right back at rock bottom. Playing the tape helps people in recovery manage cravings by appealing to the brain’s higher functions and our understanding that mind-altering chemicals are not the answer to anxiety.
#2 Create a schedule.
While we’re normally allotted a small amount of free time while going to work and/or school, quarantine leaves us with far too much of it. This creates the opportunity for the creeping temptation of relapse to take hold. Though most recovering addicts picked up helpful tools to shut down obsessive drug-related thoughts during the quiet moments, rehab also stresses the importance of avoiding triggers to begin with. Developing structure ahead of time gives you things to look forward to and focus on when cravings hit.
#3 Treat your body well.
Self-care is always important, but particularly so when we’re cooped up and unable to access normal healthy outlets like the gym, taking a run, or going to hang out at the local coffee shop. Cooking provides an opportunity to fill time for those inclined to be adventurous, but even small choices like choosing an apple for a snack rather than chips add up. Comfort food can backfire when we lean too heavily on it, causing us to feel sluggish and devoid of energy (food is fuel). Regulating sleep is important as well—too little or too much both have negative effects on your well being.
#4 Reach out.
Last week we published an article about online resources for AA meetings. Use them! Though most in-person meetings have been put on hiatus for social distancing, these virtual resources can help keep recovering addicts and alcoholics on the right track. In addition to these meetings, it is helpful to reach out to your friends often to both check in on them and keep yourself in the right frame of mind. Reaching out can also go beyond “are you okay”—online gaming on mobile, PC, and consoles offer boundless opportunities to occupy restless minds with those we care about.
Isolation and Anxiety During Quarantine Creates Relapse Risk
When left in isolation, maladaptive behaviors of recovering addicts trying to stay clean and sober can begin to resurface. This creates a dangerous relapse risk, particularly with the loss of fellowship meetings that many rely on. If you or someone you love is struggling to stay sober in isolation or has already relapsed, our substance abuse counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-737-7363