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Addiction in times of a pandemic

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The pandemic has put Canadians to the test. 2020 has undoubtedly been a challenging year for many, especially those with addictions. According to several surveys, substance use has increased dramatically as the population in isolation has had to deal with unusual and complex emotions. In collaboration with the CERVO Foundation, psychologist Dr. Guillaume Pelletier provides an overview of the situation.

To understand this growing phenomenon, we must first try to understand the link between the pandemic and the increase in the use of licit and illicit substances (alcohol, drugs, medications, supplements, etc.). “The pandemic has impacted our way of life in a singular way, and even more so for the most vulnerable people in our society. On the one hand, the menace of the disease and the socio-cultural and economic disruption resulting from preventive measures have generated a climate of uncertainty and insecurity favourable to emotional distress. On the other hand, the drastic decrease in occupations, leisure and social ties greatly limits access to the usual coping mechanisms for unpleasant emotions and emotional distress. Faced with this mixture of insecurity and powerlessness, which is particularly difficult to recognize, accept and tolerate, it is understandable that some people have come to increase their use of substances, the Internet, food and sexuality to distract or soothe themselves,” says Dr. Pelletier.

Normal use or addiction?

In all its complexity, nothing is ever totally black or white with the human being. With this in mind, we generally try to situate a given person’s substance use on a continuum ranging from low-risk to high-risk or problematic use. This is done by looking at amounts, frequencies and patterns of use. It also looks at the risk of physical, psychological and social harms associated with that particular individual’s substance-use patterns. To describe the progression to addiction, Dr. Pelletier draws the following analogy. “I like to remember that the use of the term addiction refers to an addictive relationship. As human beings, we are naturally designed to bond, attach and depend on people, objects and activities that give us pleasure or relief. Pleasure and relief are in fact cues that our biological, psychological, social and spiritual needs are being met or are in the process of being met. It is therefore natural to expect a person to seek repeated contact with these pleasurable or soothing people, objects or activities, especially when distress is intense and pleasure absent. The problem is that you get used to it. We become tolerant and, as the effects are less and less satisfactory, we seek to do more, to increase contact with these people, objects or activities. They take up more and more space in our lives, to the point where other important people, objects or activities begin to be neglected. The risks increase, the harms accumulate and we begin to find our relationship with that person, object or activity toxic. But even though the consequences are real, we can’t cut off or change our contact with that person, object or activity. Well, it’s the same with substances, except that we add a direct effect on the biochemistry of the brain,” he says.

Coping With Problematic Use

This year’s Mental Health Week, May 3-9, 2021, explored emotions and how humans have learned to judge, fear and reject unpleasant emotions and vulnerability in themselves and others. Identifying and understanding them would help to mitigate them and play an important role in reducing potentially problematic use. “There is no such thing as negative emotions. We have learned to repress unpleasant emotions, to avoid them, to deny them or worse, to exploit them. However, emotions play a crucial role in the biological, psychological and social balance of a person and a society. They inform us of the state of our organism and allow us to inform others, to engage, to mobilize and to act in favour of our biological, psychological and social balance. When a person uses substances, it is a way of silencing these emotions. It is a way to quickly re-establish a sense of security and to regain the power to act. To get away from the insecurity, the helplessness and the feeling of being vulnerable. Thus, the first step in dealing with a substance use problems is to observe one’s substance use, but especially to observe what happens inside when the urge to use is absent, when it arises and when one is under the influence of a substance. To be interested in this experience with curiosity and kindness, as we would be interested in that of our best friend, our life partner or our child. Then, to think about the possibility of changing something, to experiment with change by making small choices: reducing frequency or quantity, avoiding use in certain contexts, or reducing accessibility to substances. Social support, occupations and meditation are alternatives to substance use. Nevertheless, one should never hesitate to seek professional help in thinking about or trying to change one’s substance use habits,” says Dr. Pelletier.

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