December 5, 2021

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Fit And Go Forward

How to Get Through the Pandemic Winter Without Leaning on Drugs and Alcohol

Whimsical illustration of two people surrounded by Christmas decorations and drug paraphenalia

Illustration by Hunter French

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“Happy” “Holidays” 2020 is a series about feeling connected and vaguely festive during the coronavirus pandemic.

There’s no real way around it: This year has been terrifying and exhausting and generally horrible, to the extent that there’s almost no solace in the fact that it’s ending. To top it all off, we’re about to enter a holiday season where the things we typically associate with this time of the year—office parties, Friendsgiving, cookie exchanges, traveling, celebrating with relatives—are all explicitly not allowed, for fear of worsening the already-terrible swell of COVID-19 cases across the country. 

If all of that sounds like a recipe for pulling down the blinds and getting wasted alone, that’s understandable. Anxiety, depression, loss, boredom, stress, and loneliness (sound familiar to anyone else?) can all propel people to use drugs and alcohol in search of relief.

If you’re trying to avoid that, though, VICE spoke with experts about ways to cope with a distant Thanksgiving and a crappy Christmas without spending the rest of the year in a drug-induced stupor. Here’s what they had to say. 

Keep track of what triggers the urge to drink, smoke, whatever

Navigating one’s personal relationship with substance usage requires a lot of introspection. We’ve got nothing but time right now, but this process requires the will and ability to unpack your own situation, too. 

“When I work with clients who are dealing with grief, I often teach them some tools for observing themselves, to note what triggers certain reactions,” Natalia Skritskaya, research scientist for the Center for Complicated Grief, told VICE. “When, for example, do they reach out for the bottle, or when do they tend to smoke?” Skritskaya said tracking these patterns can clarify whether one is leaning too hard on substances to dodge unpleasant emotions. 

“An important part of an adaptation to loss is to process the reality and consequences of the loss,” she said. Though she mostly deals with clients grieving the loss of a loved one, she said the same principle can apply to other kinds of loss, too: If someone is taking substances to avoid processing, that’s when it becomes a problem.

Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer of American Addiction Centers, agreed that taking note of when and how one turns to drinking or drugs is key to maintaining a healthy relationship with those activities.

“Drinking or using a substance to escape or dull emotions, there is cause for concern,” Weinstein told VICE. “Someone who drinks to avoid loneliness or anxiety will not develop the skills required to deal with those stressors, so every time they are feeling lonely or anxious, they drink.” This, he said, can quickly become a “slippery slope” that could lead to more serious dependency issues down the road. 

Even if it’s hard, map out the Big Day(s)

While the idea of making solo holiday plans might be dread-inducing, resist the urge to be avoidant and start figuring out ways to literally pass the time—because the holidays are happening, whether we want them to or not. (VICE’s Rachel Miller gave this advice out in 2017—ahead of the curve alert!) 

“We don’t like to feel negative emotions, so people might avoid thinking about what’s going to happen, because they feel like, ‘Oh, it’s not going to be the same, it’s gonna be a reminder of what I lost,’” Skritskaya told VICE. “Give yourself permission to feel sad, then plan ahead and think about what you can do to make the day less difficult.” 

Set up a group call with friends and/or family members—fuck it, fill your day with video calls if you can stomach it—design your own movie marathon, read all the Twilight books in one sitting, cook something elaborate and decadent, try to train your cat, volunteer (in a COVID-safe way!), go for a drive, a bike ride, a hike, or even just a walk in your neighborhood, lie on your couch guilt-free, whatever feels good and festive to you: Just know what you’re doing. With a game plan in hand, it’ll be less tempting to fall back on substance-related coping strategies. 

Build a routine, and stick to it

On the note of planning, one of the most straightforward ways to avoid falling into a pattern of substance use you don’t like is to build and adhere to a schedule that keeps you feeling occupied—or, at least, as occupied as possible right now. 

According to Ken Leonard, director of the University of Buffalo Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions, a daily routine can go a long way when it comes to combating the feelings that could push you to cope with drinking or drugs. 

Exercising regularly, waking up and going to bed at roughly the same time every day, and sitting down for three square meals that you also set a time for will all go a long way towards maintaining a healthy emotional and mental equilibrium. “We know that stress and negative feelings can be influenced by our overall physical state,” Leonard told VICE. “Maintaining regularity is an important element in all of this.”

Another important part of a healthy routine, especially when it comes to dodging tricky situations with drugs and alcohol? Maintaining your mental health to the best of your ability. 

Obviously, there are significant barriers to mental health treatment, depending on your job status, insurance plan (or lack thereof), options in your area… unfortunately, the list goes on and on. But, if you’ve examined your drinking and drug habits and suspect that you’re self-medicating, treating the root causes when possible is definitely the move. 

“Over the past 10 months there has just been an explosion of telepsychology and telepsychiatry,” Leonard said. “There’s also a lot of treatment for alcohol and drug use that is delivered in that way.”

If you don’t have the resources to access one-on-one therapy, you’re not totally out of luck. There are plenty of places to find free, online support groups with other people trying to make it through 2020. Things like guided meditation, building your time management skills, and avoiding known stressors can also help you keep a grip on your mental health, which can in turn help you from slipping into a worrisome place with drinking and drugs. 

Cast around to see if there’s a silver lining

For anyone struggling this holiday season, it’s OK to take solace in the fact that while you may not get to do everything you love, you also won’t need to pretend to feel any better than you actually do. 

Rather than drinking to loosen up at an obligatory company holiday party or passing a joint around with cousins to make Uncle Dan’s political rants quasi-palatable, there’s now space to build out your own little holiday in a way that’s as healthy and happy as it possibly can be. 

“For some people who are struggling with intense, prolonged grief, they don’t enjoy holiday gatherings much, because they find it stressful,” Skritskaya said. “Often, at the gatherings, they feel like they have to pretend to be happy. So, with a pandemic, in some ways it’s been easier for some people.”

Leonard said that moving beyond the holidays and into the winter, now could be a time to start brainstorming constructive ways to spend all of this free time, especially ones that tie into your pre-pandemic interests. “Look at whether there are any hobbies you’ve neglected,” Leonard said. “They don’t need to be big goals. They can be small goals that you can make progress on, on sort of a week-to-week basis.” 

If that sounds a little DARE-esque, maybe it is—but even though prohibition is wack, these kinds of little projects can be a great way to remind yourself that there really are better things to do than drugs.

Lean on your loved ones—they’re probably hurting, too

The holiday season is all about being with other people. Even though we really shouldn’t be physically around each other right now, that’s all the more reasons to make a concerted effort to connect with the people you love. 

Not only do they want to hear from you, too, but Weinstein said that overdoing it with drugs and alcohol might be a result of being unable to scratch your socialization itch. “Research has shown that during periods of loneliness or isolation, dopamine-related neurons become activated in an area of the brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus, and the activation of those neurons motivates the individual to seek social interaction,” Weinstein said. “For some people, when social interaction is not available, they may turn to alcohol and/or substances.”

Talking to, laughing with, and loving your friends, family, or even doing a deeper-than-usual check-in with the partner you live with can keep you from using substances to fill the social void that the past eight months has left in all of our lives—and, if nothing else, that’s something to be thankful for.

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.

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