Social distancing with addiction: Therapist offers tips amid coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has now led Fulton County to issue a stay-at-home order. Not long after, Gov. Brian Kemp issued a statewide shelter-in-place order to help prevent the spread of the virus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

However, such orders not only have disrupted day-to-day activities, but also have introduced new challenges for people dealing with addiction. People who normally attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings in person have had to adjust to changes in the way meetings are conducted by meeting online or over the phone.

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Both organizations have statements concerning how people seeking meetings can continue to have them while social distancing.

"Many groups have alerted local A.A. offices or hotlines if they are temporarily not meeting in their regular space," reads a notice posted on AA's website. "Some groups have shared that they are utilizing digital platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, or conducting conference calls."

NA's website posted a notice that reads: "Some groups are discussing contingencies for the possibility that they will not be able to meet face to face for some period; ideas include hosting phone meetings or online meetings. These are just a few thoughts; we honor each NA group's responsibility to discuss and determine what is best for their meeting."

People who use the organizations’ resources are encouraged to get in touch with their groups to learn how they are handling meetings.

"These procedures of forced isolation will highlight the feelings of loneliness that they have at one point assuaged through drugs or alcohol," Habiba Zaman, therapist and owner of North Star of Georgia Counseling in Tucker, told the AJC via email. "It will be much harder to fill that gap without the support of services that provide 12 step or similar programs and could result in relapses. Financial uncertainty is also causing stress and are triggering cravings in those struggling with addiction which not only heightens the need for escape, but the isolation is creating favorable conditions for relapse."

Zaman has several recommendations for people dealing with addiction, as social distancing doesn't appear to be called off anytime soon.

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Routines and self-care are necessary

“People in recovery are more susceptible to relapse because they’ve developed and are working on maintaining a healthy routine which has now been either slightly impacted or completely disrupted,” Zaman said. “Ensuring that they are keeping a routine which includes a regular sleep schedule (no napping), showering, getting dressed, going outside, eating, and doing something that feels rewarding and productive” is important.

Zaman added that exercising and solo walks, runs and hikes can help people with addiction avoid the monotony of remaining at home.

Use video chatting for a human connection

Zaman encourages people dealing with addiction to stay in touch with loved ones using apps such as FaceTime “because it is as close to eye contact as we can get, which is hugely important for human connection, especially when touch is not possible.”

"Eye contact is something we typically struggle with because of our levels of distraction anyway ...  but when touch is off the table, and now under these circumstances, we have to, withintent, up the amount of connection with loved ones as much as possible. Smart recovery offers online meetings that can provide the engagement found in social support," she continued.

Regular use of practices to calm the body

Zaman encourages people with addiction to “use somatic calming practices regularly, not just when triggered.”

Examples include meditation and body calming exercises, which can be accessed on apps such as Headspace and Calm, which Zaman said “are great for this.”

While Headspace is offering U.S. healthcare professionals free access to premium content, Calm has curated a list of free resources to use. Meditation app Simple Habit is offering free access to premium content to people financially affected by COVID-19 through the end of April.

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Zaman also recommends focusing on managing stress and anxiety by paying attention to the parts of the acronym HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

“When you are experiencing more than one of these at any given time, you are your subconscious fears’ worst enemy,” she said. “Things that we could otherwise cope with and talk through will become triggers. Managing these 4 things throughout the day and making sure not more than one are suffering at any given time will help keep emotions at baseline.”

Outside of relaxation techniques, Zaman recommends people dealing with addiction limit how much news they’re reading about the novel coronavirus. She said that while remaining informed is key, “over exposure can create more anxiety and even panic.” Zaman emphasized obtaining news from doctors and public health professionals.

There are also things loved ones can do to support people dealing with addiction during this time. Among them, Zaman said, are frequent check-ins and reminding them of  “the strengths that they have leaned on to achieve their sobriety.”

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"People with addictions have a remarkable sense of survival, incredible strength and resilience, and an ability to see past dark days," Zaman said. "They have worked really hard, and they know what it's like to face nearly insurmountable odds and have a lot of experience to offer from that perspective.

“The best thing we could do is learn from their strength and resilience, listen to them and their experiences, ask for their perspectives, and in this way, not only are we supporting them and helping them feel connected and worthy and loved, we are helping ourselves as a witness to their history and strength,” she said.

If you or a loved one are dealing with addiction and need help, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-662-HELP.

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