“Stress” is a nebulous term. Even though it’s thrown around a lot, it’s hard to quantify. Hans Selye, who coined the term as it is now used, said, “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.”
Still, it’s important to try to define and understand it, because it has a huge effect on mental health and substance use. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are swimming in stress.
When we use the word, we generally mean physical, emotional, or mental strain. When a person feels they lack the internal or external resources to meet life demands, that’s stress. It’s the feeling of reaching a breaking point but having to keep going. With increased stress comes increased risk of addiction. A person who is collapsing under the weight of numerous stressors will look for an escape.
Stress is also a physiological response. There is a lot of overlap between brain areas responsible for modulating stress and those involved in reward-seeking behavior. And the brain’s reward circuit plays a major role in addiction. Addiction, among other things, is essentially a learned behavior; the brain’s reward circuit learns to expect a reward from the substance. But with each use the payoff lessens and lessens, and life gets harder and harder.
Reaching for your preferred substance as a salve during the pandemic will ultimately increase stress. In a situation where we already don’t have much control, you will have even less control over your decisions, actions, and circumstances. And again, it will cause more stress on the physiological level. Addictive substances can release two to ten times more dopamine into the brain than natural rewards do. In response, the brain receptors become overwhelmed and produce less dopamine. This is also one of the reasons a lot of substances cause or exacerbate anxiety over time. A dopamine imbalance can cause anxiety symptoms.
The American Institute of Stress points out that “while everyone can’t agree on a definition of stress, all of our experimental and clinical research confirms that the sense of having little or no control is always distressful.” While it’s true that we may not agree on the exact meaning of stress, most of us would agree that COVID-19 is defined by a lack of control.
If your stress levels feel unmanageable, this is an important time to focus on your mental health. We’ve shared resources on how to manage difficult feelings and use coping skills on this blog here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And in case that’s not enough reading material, we recommended some books about addiction and mental health here and here.
Ultimately, though, you know what works best for you. Make that a priority and advocate for it.
That said, if you are struggling, it is okay to ask for help. If you think you have a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. TruHealing Centers is open and here for you, with hospital-grade sanitization and telehealth options so that you can feel safe in treatment. At each of our facilities across the country, we will empower you to build a life in long-term recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.