The physiological and emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is evident across the board; many people are affected either directly by contracting COVID-19 or by witnessing others suffer from the illness.
The scientific community and the media have thoroughly documented the physiological effects of COVID-19¹, and not a day goes by without hearing an update about a new variant or some other news. Despite all the coverage, the news and the scientific community rarely discussed the mental health impact caused by this long, drawn-out crisis.
Now, research is making connections between COVID-19, brain chemistry, mental health, and addiction.
Negative Impacts of COVID-19 on Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic stirred up a wave of mental health issues. Aside from the expected grief, constant worry, and fear over contracting COVID, we are seeing an increase in anxiety, depression, social isolation, fear, economic consequences, and other challenges².
In a study from the CDC in August 2020, just five months into the pandemic:
- 31% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression
- 13% reported having started or increased substance use
- 26% reported stress-related symptoms
- 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, these numbers are nearly double the rates we would have expected before the pandemic.
Additionally, there has been an increase in neurological and psychiatric issues, such as psychosis and neurocognitive dementia-like symptoms during the prolonged pandemic¹. In severe cases, suicidal ideation and chronic depression have caused people to spiral out of control, causing a dire need for more robust mental health measures.
COVID-19 has changed our brains, either neurologically or by the stress imposed on us in the wake of the damage. Many people were forced to make sudden changes or pivot instantaneously, forcing us into a reactive state.
The pre-COVID world was very different than the one we live in today. Mental health was not as much of a priority for those already struggling with SUD, and addiction issues were often overlooked. The COVID-19 pandemic only seemed to exacerbate these issues as observed by:² ³
- Increased drug use as an effort to cope with the impact of a disaster
- Polysubstance drug use – using multiple substances or changing drug of preference due to limited access
- Relapse – the stress and mental health toll on individuals with SUD problems caused many to revert to old coping behaviors
- Overdose – isolation and quarantine posed a threat to those who may be using alone, with no one around to intervene in the event of an overdose
Substance Use Increases Risk and Impact of COVID
Specific substances can increase susceptibility to COVID-19. For example, those who take opioids are at risk of fatal overdosage. Those who survive opioid overdose often experience respiratory depression and hypoxemia, leading to cardiopulmonary and neurological complications. Methamphetamine, which is usually smoked, can cause lung injury, pulmonary hypertension, and cardiomyopathy. As a result, people with SUD are at greater risk of worse COVID-19 outcomes³.
Specifically, research shows those with SUD issues are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 for the following reasons³:
- Substance-induced pulmonary issues
- Compromised immunity
- Inadequate access to health care
- Lack of recovery resources due to social distancing
The correlation between COVID-19, mental health, and addiction is clear. Although the statistics may look dismal at first glance, there is hope. You can choose to navigate this new paradigm armed with awareness, tools, and resources to help you stay on course and build recovery capital.
Mental Health Resources in COVID-19
While we saw a large number of people adversely affected by COVID-19, it also became an opportunity for others to focus on their health. Throughout the pandemic, people dove into mindfulness, yoga, meditation, exercise, and other healthy activities¹. Telehealth made services more accessible for clients who may have been limited by geographic location, transportation, or scheduling conflicts in the past. COVID has forced us to reevaluate our approach to health and prioritize mental health wellness instead of mental health sick care.
A few ways to combat the impact of COVID-19 may include¹:
- Getting into nature – ecotherapy is a great way to escape the stress, overwhelm, and chatter in your head. The ocean, parks, mountains, and green spaces can be places of refuge and are scientifically proven to impact health positively.
- Moving your body – get those endorphins going! Physical activity is a natural antidepressant and will keep your body strong and healthy.
- Staying present – we only have power over this moment. Don’t get ahead of yourself; take it one step at a time and do what you can. Mediation can help with this.
- Finding a community – this doesn’t have to be in person; there are plenty of online resources to help you stay connected and focused on recovery.
Stress Management as Harm Reduction
In extended periods of high stress, sometimes the best thing we can do is practice harm reduction. Mindfulness-based interventions like yoga, breathwork, and meditation can be especially beneficial for physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness. Research shows that structured meditation and mindfulness trainings “improve emotional regulation, reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and prevent substance abuse—symptoms that have all been associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.” ¹
Breathing practices stimulate the vagus nerve, which is responsible for hormonal changes and stress reduction⁴. Data suggests that the activation of the vagus nerve in certain types of breathing results in calm alertness⁴, releasing endorphins, and activating neurotransmitters⁵.
Along with being able to help with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation can alleviate addictive tendencies⁶. This is promising for those affected by COVID-19 and SUD who are looking to improve their health and wellness.
Recovery in COVID-19
While addiction is considered a chronic condition, there is robust evidence that most individuals who experience addiction can achieve sustained recovery with changes in social networks and changes in identity⁷. The pandemic has disrupted so many of our routines, but it can also serve as a new opportunity to make meaningful changes when we are willing to seek out new support systems, detach from experiences and behaviors that no longer benefit us, invest in healthier routines, and as a result, change our identities.
The meaning of recovery varies from person-to-person⁸. The term “recovery” itself is poorly defined, and a handful of definitions have isolated Quality of Life (QOL) as a critical recovery component⁹. Some researchers suggest that psychosocial functioning and quality of life are more important goals for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) than strict abstinence⁶. However you define it, recovery is a deeply personal path.
Personalized Mental Health Support
At All Points North, we work to help you personalize your experience with individualized plans based on your specific needs. We use a comprehensive, whole-person approach to treatment, whether you’re seeking support for mental health issues, trauma, or addiction. We partner cutting-edge technology with world-class clinicians and an intentional luxury setting so that your only focus is healing.
When you have the tools and support you need, you can move from surviving to thriving and achieve long-lasting recovery. We may not know what the “new normal” will look like post-pandemic, but you can find resources to replenish resilience and prioritize your health while we wait to see what the future holds.
If you are struggling with mental health or addiction, finding the right treatment program may seem overwhelming, but we can help. Start a LiveChat or call 855-510-4585 to get started on your healing journey today. We’ll help you find your way forward toward a new life in the “new normal” and beyond.
Your story matters, and we want to be there to support you. Contact one of our caring representatives by phone at 855-510-4585 or via to get started. This pandemic is challenging and isolating. Please don’t suffer in silence — we’re here for you.
- Vatansever, D., Wang, S. & Sahakian, B.J. (2020). COVID-19 and promising solutions to combat symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-020-00791-9
- Chiappini, S., Guirguis, A., John, A., Corkery, J. M., & Schifano, F. (2020). COVID-19: The Hidden Impact on Mental Health and Drug Addiction. Frontiers in psychiatry, 11, 767. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00767
- Dubey, M. J., Ghosh, R., Chatterjee, S., Biswas, P., Chatterjee, S., & Dubey, S. (2020). COVID-19 and addiction. Diabetes & metabolic syndrome, 14(5), 817–823. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dsx.2020.06.008
- Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2005b). Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II-clinical applications and guidelines. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 11, 711–717. doi:10.1089/acm.2005.11.711
- Lake, J., & Spiegel, D. (2007). Complementary and alternative treatments in mental health Care. Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.
- Talcherkar, A. (2018). Practical application of Ayurveda in addiction treatment. Ayurveda Journal of Health, 16(1), 36–38.
- David Best, Ana-Maria Bliuc, Muhammad Iqbal, Katie Upton & Steve Hodgkins (2018) Mapping social identity change in online networks of addiction recovery, Addiction Research & Theory, 26:3, 163-173.
- Subbaraman, M. S., & Witbrodt, J. (2014). Differences between abstinent and non-abstinent individuals in recovery from alcohol use disorders. Addictive Behaviors, 39, 1730–1735.
- Witkiewitz, K. (2013). “Success” following alcohol treatment: Moving beyond abstinence. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37(s1), E9–E13.
Reviewed by Emmeline Massey MSW, LSW