Vices we adopted as the pandemic entrenched may be hard to kick, warn experts
Addictive behaviours may feel good in the moment, but can push aside underlying trauma
A study that looked at vices people turned to over the first several months of the pandemic has experts warning about the patterns people can fall into when coping mechanisms become habits or even addictions.
The study, a partnership between the University of Guelph and the Institute of Psychology at the Humboldt University of Berlin, tracked stress against potentially-addictive behaviours such as drinking and gambling.
"The level of stress increased quite steadily as the length of lockdown progressed," with a plateau at about 90 days, said Sunghwan Yi, professor in the Lang School of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph. And for all the addictive behaviours tracked there was a strong correlation with the level of stress reported by participants, he told CBC.
Generally speaking, people indulged in the vices they already favoured before COVID-19, but in greater volumes as they experienced greater levels of distress from isolation and lockdown conditions at the time, Yi said.
Over the course of six months, from March to October 2020, 1,430 people were asked how much stress they were feeling, and they self-reported how much they were taking part in each of eight behaviours that tend to be addictive, including:
- Consuming alcohol.
- Consuming legal substances - such as cannabis.
- Consuming illegal substances.
"The main thing that [the study] showed ... is that people dealing with the pandemic are dealing with it in some unhealthy ways," said Michael Chaiton, co-director of the Collaborative Specialization of Addiction Studies at University of Toronto. "They feel good in the moment but don't actually deal with the underlying issue — the trauma itself."
Stress hinders constructive activity
When people are under extreme stress, said Yi, it's difficult enough to manage the demands of everyday life, let alone engage in what he called "constructive behaviour."
"Trying to read a book, trying to build something or trying to learn some new cooking skills — that's not likely to be something that people engage in, because it takes time and it takes concentration," Yi said.
What troubles Yi and Chaiton — an independent scientist not involved with Yi's study — is how behaviours that started as a temporary coping mechanism easily can turn into habits and patterns that are harder to stop.
"It will probably take a lot more determination for people to shed this behaviour," said Yi, partly because of how the human mind forms habits — but also due to tolerance, especially in the case of alcohol, nicotine and substance use.
How to know if you have a problem
"It's okay if people have a glass of wine after a hard day, there's nothing particularly wrong with that. The issue is that process can lead to dependence and addiction. And becoming addicted to something adds to your stress. You're now coping to the addiction itself," said Chaiton.
Carizon Family and Community Services, a counselling centre in Waterloo region, confirms it is seeing an increase in unhealthy coping strategies, said director of counselling Lisa Akey.
"People really have to do that self-assessment: is this a habit that has gotten a little out of control or is this now affecting my day-to-day functioning," Akey said.
She said one way to check is to ask:
- Is my job being affected by this habit?
- Is my parenting being affected by this habit?
- Are my relationships being affected by this habit?
The wait list for addictions treatment continues to grow in Waterloo region, Akey said; support for eating disorders sees some of the greatest increased demand.
She encouraged anyone unsure if they are developing a problem to start the conversation with their family doctor, primary healthcare provider, or employee assistance program.
"The [first] step is reaching out for help," said Akey.