Coping With COVID-19: Substance Abuse

Avatar of Helen Kibel

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of June 2020, 13 percent of Americans have reported starting or increasing substance usage as a way to cope with mental struggles related to the pandemic. Nationwide, the pandemic has brought on an 18 percent increase in overdoses compared to the same months in 2019. I have seen the effects of this personally and know of many close friends and family who have turned to harmful substances as a form of coping with social isolation. They are people that I, for the most part, never would have expected it from. A large percentage of my friends who have had mental struggles prior to the pandemic have upped their medication prescriptions and increased treatment. 

I was able to interview a student who has turned to this coping mechanism, and who will remain anonymous. They said, about using substances, “Even before quarantine I considered it. My family is not secretive about their own use and it was easy to get my hands on [a vape].” Similar to the effects of meditation, they reported that vaping quickly calmed their nerves. “It’s not so time consuming,” they said, when I asked about other options. “I can have it with me whenever, and my family either doesn’t care or hasn’t found it.” 

I asked, “Do you feel reliant on [your vape]?”

They paused before answering, “Yeah. It’s hard to go without it for longer than a day or two.” They continued, “Sometimes I regret starting, but [other times] I’m really grateful I’ve found something that works. I get really anxious ‘cause I’m all cooped up with my family. They’re always asking me about my grades, which haven’t been great, and it’s caused a lot of stress.” The person I interviewed attends Berkeley High School (BHS) and thus we have had the same school-based education related to substance abuse – so I asked for their thoughts on the effects of vaping, and whether starting vaping has affected their perception of it. “Absolutely it does,” they said, “I’m nervous. But I’m also working on vaping less. I’ve been going on walks more, and that works to distract me from the temptation. But vaping is also great for winding down, or if I feel overwhelmed by my homework and can’t focus. So I think the overall benefits outweigh the present consequences.” 

While it can’t exactly compare, I have been drinking more caffeine, as well as participating in exercise and other stress-managing hobbies at about ten times my regular amount. This was how I dealt with my irregular sleep schedule, but it is now something I crave every day. If I don’t have either coffee or at least a cup of caffeinated tea, I spend the rest of my day longing for it and doing poor work. It makes me feel awful, and like I’ve lost control of my own self. I hate that I need caffeine to feel normal. And so, while I cannot relate to the sort of substance addiction that our anonymous student is dealing with, the feeling is not foreign.

On occasion, when my workload is less stifling and I don’t have to focus on work for hours a day, I cut off my caffeine intake. It throws me off kilter and dramatically impacts my mental efficiency for the first few days, but by the fourth I feel closer to normal. As with any withdrawal periods, whether it be from nicotine, coffee, or something entirely different,  common symptoms include feelings of irritability and restlessness, headaches, increased sweating, feelings of depression and anxiety, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, hunger, and, of course, cravings for what you are withdrawing from. If you are withdrawing from a substance, it is best to consult a medical professional to avoid otherwise preventable side effects and to ease the road to recovery.

American Addiction Centers offers free and confidential guidance to those suffering from addiction at (866) 407-9651.