To cope with the stress of everyday life people often turn to drugs and alcohol — even more so, it seems, during the pandemic.
“Studies have shown substance use and drug overdoses in the U.S. have increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Vasilis K. Pozios, M.D., Chief Medical Officer with Oakland Community Health Network (OCHN), adding that boredom and stress relief could explain this jump.
What may begin as a simple way to relax after a long day, substance use can escalate to a destructive level, especially if you are genetically vulnerable to addiction. “Individuals may be predisposed to physiological and psychological dependence,” Pozios says. “The physical health consequences of substance use can be serious and permanent and can lead to functional impairment, including problems at work or school, and with family and friends.” Substance use can harm those you love, too, because it can “lead to reckless and descriptive behavior while impaired,” he says.
We can’t always self-determine when drugs and alcohol are a problem, but Pozios offers some telling signs of substance misuse. “Although any substance use may be inadvisable depending on individual circumstances, warning signs for problematic substance use include difficulty cutting back (or stopping) use, using more than what’s intended and people telling you that you have a problem,” he says.
Rather than a sign of weakness, a substance use disorder is a medical condition. Over time, substance misuse can modify your brain and result in the need for larger quantities in order to achieve pleasure. “This, of course, puts the individual at risk of overdose,” says Pozios. “Also, certain substances — especially alcohol and benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Ativan, to name a few) — can result in withdrawal symptoms when stopped. These symptoms may range from discomfort to life-threatening emergencies if the discontinuation is done without medical assistance.”
Long term, substance use disorders can negatively affect the mind and body. “The use of cannabis in children and adolescents has been associated with long-term reductions in cognitive abilities and an increased risk of developing psychotic disorders,” Pozios warns. Alcohol misuse can cause liver problems, heart disease — it can even be associated with dementia.
Healthier ways to beat stress
Hobbies, support groups and social time with peers can all offer healthier forms of stress relief, says Pozios. “Exercise is a big one, especially exercise that incorporates mindfulness, like yoga,” he suggests. Healthy eating and sleeping habits and structured relaxation techniques can offer relief, too.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Learning new coping strategies with a therapist or support group can be a successful long-term strategy. “Don’t discount how helpful it may be to learn how to articulate and communicate your feelings with trusted friends, family and mental health professionals,” Pozios says. “Mental health and substance use disorder treatment works! Recovery can be a challenge, but it’s worth it. OCHN is here to help.”
OCHN leads a provider service network that assists about 23,000 Oakland County citizens at more than 300 service sites across the county. People who receive public mental health services through OCHN’s provider network include those who have an intellectual or developmental disability, mental health challenge or substance use disorder. The majority of these individuals have Medicaid insurance coverage.
OCHN’s goal is to ensure these individuals are aware of and have access to services and supports that will improve their health and quality of life, as well as ensure their engagement in full community participation. Its mission to “inspire hope, empower people and strengthen communities” reflects an unyielding belief in a “Valuable System for Valued People.” Programs and supports provided by OCHN’s service network are available at oaklandchn.org.