How Pandemic Era Isolation and Anxiety Can Contribute to Substance Abuse

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Dr. Barbara Nosal, Newport’s Chief Clinical Officer, sat down with Cheddar to talk about the effects of anxiety and social isolation on teens & young adults battling with substance abuse. Below is a transcription of her remarks.

Host: The coronavirus pandemic is a monumental health and economic crisis that is changing the world. Cheddar is digging a little deeper to discuss the industries and Americans that are left behind as the country charts a path forward. The changes and isolation brought by pandemic stay at home orders can be especially difficult to those battling substance abuse. Many treatment centers are reporting relapses and it has some health experts worried. Joining us now is Dr. Barbara Nosal, Founding Clinical Director of Newport Academy. Dr Nosal, Welcome to the show – such an important topic. Tell us more about what sort of impact this isolation that all of us are going through can have on those especially dealing with addiction.

Dr Nosal: Yes, absolutely, and thank you for having me. As you mentioned the pandemic has increased social isolation and anxiety and that leads to the increase in substance use, especially among young adults who are using drugs to self-medicate or relieve stress. We have seen a significant increase in Fentanyl and Benzol, particularly Xanax, use and that resulted in Heroin dependence and shifting to Fentanyl dependence, resulting in overdose and deaths being really the highest ever. We are seeing a 48% increase since 2019 in those – primarily in Fentanyl overdose.

The pandemic brings with it the social isolation and distancing that really prevent those in recovery from being able to make the connection that they need that is really important – sober supportive friends, engaging in fun activities to fill their time, both of which are limited or nonexistent with the stay at home orders, social distancing and mandated closures of social gatherings such as 12-step meetings. And so, for a lot of young people – especially those new to recovery, they are less likely to develop these new relationships in a virtual set.

Host: I did want to talk about that, Dr. Nosal, because I actually have a close family member who is dealing with addiction and I can tell the virtual meetings are not the same as him actually going into meetings. What are these support groups that are going virtual? Are they less effective or are people not utilizing them correctly?

Dr. Nosal: I think it is more about the connection and really having the relationship that is so important for young people, and that really comes with that face-to-face interaction vs. virtually. It is challenging to be able to build those relationships, have the in-depth conversation and the emotional connection when it is all virtual. The social skill building, face to face interactions, having those conversations and again, having fun is so important to young people. Being able to spend time with friends and their peers. There is this absence in virtual that just can’t fill these needs.

Host: So, we are talking about young people. Any other groups in particular that are more vulnerable? Veterans for example, teenagers?

Dr. Nosal: Absolutely. When we look at teens, and young adults in particular, because there are so many significant events in their lives: birthdays, graduations, being able to go on to college and living on campus, new jobs, internships, there is a lot of loss that teens and young adults are grieving. We know that peer relationships are so important since this is the time they develop their social skills and build those relationships. Particularly with Gen Z we see that social isolation and the digital overload has really created that social isolation and many of them that have had to put their lives on pause are realizing that those things that they have taken for granted are in the past. Having remote college classes is just not the same, even virtual dating is not the same as real life experiences of connection and growth and development that they really need.

Host: What are some of the warning signs that family and friends should look out for?

Dr. Nosal: Basically, looking for anything that is a loss of interest in activities, spending a lot of time isolated, sleep disturbances – they may be oversleeping or having insomnia, the lack of energy, trouble focusing, an increase in anxiety and stress, irritability and mood swings. For family members it is so important to open up the dialog early on. I always say that at the first sign or indication of any of those you should be able to have that conversation. Inquire “what are you feeling?”. Listening and validating their child, asking “how can I support you?”. For parents to assist with problem solving, offering options – like helping the child to create virtual options and support systems. Just communicating in a really positive and supportive manner rather than directives or lecturing.

Host: I wish I knew to recognize these warning signs years ago. Such important information, thank you for sharing that. If a loved one is dealing with substance abuse and in the days of COVID and isolation, how do you help that friend or family member from a distance? 

Dr. Nosal: There are many options and really you want to connect them with professional help. Whether it is parents or a loved one, recommending that they seek professional help or connecting them with a therapist on an outpatient level. There are many treatment options – either using holistic therapies or traditional approaches or even rehabilitation. Going into a day treatment, intensive outpatient or residential. At Newport Institute our approach in treating young adults really focuses on a variety of experiential as well as traditional therapies and identifying and addressing the underlying issues that are promoting the substance use. We want our young people to learn new coping skills to support their recovery in the future, but being able to address and really process underlying core issues, disempowering beliefs whether there is trauma, mental health issues, in a holistic approach that treats the mind, body and spirit.

Host: Great advice. Thank you so much for your time and your insight and your advice. Dr. Barbara Nosal, Founding Clinical Director of Newport Academy, we really hope you come back. Thank you so much again. 

Article originally published on Cheddar