Share on Pinterest
Turning to alcohol, pot, or other substances to help ease feelings of stress and loneliness during the COVID-19 outbreak could do more harm than good. Here’s what experts suggest instead. Getty Images
  • Experts advise against using substances such as marijuana or alcohol to help reduce stress, anxiety, and loneliness while social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, these behaviors can present additional problems.
  • Marijuana and other inhaled substances including cigarettes and e-cigarettes or vaping devices can be acutely dangerous because of the stress they place on the pulmonary system.
  • Alcohol use can affect the general health of the body, leading to potential outcomes like sleeping less, and a weakened immune system.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

As feelings of anxiety, depression, or sheer boredom mount due to the growing pandemic of the coronavirus and COVID-19, the desire to turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism could become more problematic.

Experts warn against self-medicating during these stressful times for a multitude of reasons.

In cities across the nation, citizens are increasingly living under “shelter-in-place” or lockdown mandates that have closed businesses, limited social gatherings, and urged self-quarantine.

People might opt for the occasional beer or joint amidst the loneliness and existential stress of this historic moment, but individuals should be mindful of their consumption.

While having a beer or a glass of wine with dinner a couple of nights a week won’t commonly cause additional issues, higher levels of consumption can lead to bigger issues.

“Definitely I can foresee a spike in all these different means of coping, instead of engaging in positive coping mechanisms,” Dr. Navya Singh, PsyD, a psychologist and research scientist at the Columbia University department of psychiatry, told Healthline.

“Smoking, drinking, even eating, it all falls within the same realm.”

Self-medication and substance use can already be problematic for many people in everyday life. They typically appear as quick-fix solutions that may help with anxiety or depression in the short term, but ultimately lead to further issues and instability.

Within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, these behaviors can present additional problems.

Marijuana — and even other inhaled substances including cigarettes and E-cigarettes or vaping devices — can be acutely dangerous because of the stress they place on the pulmonary system.

Just this week, the National Institute on Drug Abuse issued a statement on the implications for individuals with substance use disorders in regard to COVID-19. Because the disease attacks the lungs, the NID has called it a “serious threat” to individuals who smoke or vape.

According to NID, those with compromised health from smoking or vaping “could find themselves at increased risk of COVID-19 and its more serious complications.”

Speaking to Healthline, Dr. Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, echoed those remarks, saying he felt that e-cigarettes and smoking, either of marijuana or tobacco, could turn out to be a “big problem” throughout the pandemic.

Alcohol too can be problematic. The main reason, Singh and Krakower agreed: access.

“That’s something that’s easier to procure, something that goes under the radar as something which isn’t seen really as a substance because people normalize it,” said Singh.

“You’re in quarantine, you’re at home and you’ve got nothing else to do, so you use that as an excuse to stock up on alcohol,” she added.

Alcohol, like other substances, can affect the general health of the body, leading to potential outcomes like sleeping less, and a weakened immune system. Individuals should be instituting behaviors that will fortify their health and help keep them protected from the virus.

Drinking alcohol isn’t going to do that.

“People who are self-medicating are going to put themselves at more health risks. The last thing they need to be doing is getting their bodies knocked down more and being more susceptible to the virus,” said Krakower.

The bottom line is that you don’t want to do anything to make yourself sick or injure yourself right now, because you don’t want to end up in a hospital.

Hospitals across the country are becoming overburdened as they struggle to respond to the growing number of cases of coronavirus. Showing up to a hospital right now not only adds to that burden, but also has the potential to expose otherwise healthy people to the disease.

“[Health risks] include the potential for more medical visits and exposure in medical setting where there could be higher concentrations of the virus,” said Krakower.

Fortunately, there are a lot of great options that people at home can try that are healthier coping mechanisms than drugs and alcohol.

Singh recommends a variety of different mindfulness and meditation exercises or relaxation techniques, which can be found on the internet or via different apps.

But your personality also matters, so keep in mind things that make you happy and calm. This could be as simple as taking a bath, reading a book, or lighting some candles and incense.

“Make a list of things that will cheer you up, things that will make you happy, and keep track of when you are slipping into the negative coping mechanisms, and replace them with positive ways of coping,” said Singh.

A change of scenery can also be great for mood. If you’re facing a self-quarantine or lockdown, you can still break out of that isolation and go for a walk or hike, as long as you’re mindful of all recommendations about social distancing and prevention of the coronavirus.

If isolation is making you lonely, reach out to friends through different digital channels.

Host a group lunch date with your friends on webcam, or get involved in a healthy online exercise challenge.

If you need to speak with a therapist or mental health professional, virtual visits and telecommunication have made it easier than ever to get the help you need without an office visit.

Above all else, stay positive, and keep focused on getting through this difficult period one day at a time.

“I think you have to get in the mindset that you’re going to get through it, and you have to be healthy to get through it. I think that may help people stop from self-medicating as much, meaning the translation of the mind onto healthier alternatives,” said Krakower.