How to prevent relapse during quarantine

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With the Coronavirus pandemic, many of us are feeling like we are trapped in a never-ending disaster film and are finding it hard to cope. For some of those with dependency issues and in recovery, that could be magnified couldn’t it?

Dean Gustar: In the last three months we have all had dramatic changes forced upon us by the emergence of COVID-19 and the worldwide response to shut down the spread of this virus. If you cast your mind back to January there was a general positive feeling to the dawn of a new decade and the opportunities that might bring to us all. Now in April it feels like we are all stuck in a weird, dystopian movie. These are challenging times for all of us. We will all be experiencing a wide range of emotions, and periods of stress and anxiety.

People who are struggling with dependency issues, or who are in a recovery process, will also face a series of additional challenges. Their version of normal is very different even in the best of times. I want to consider the challenges faced by this group and discuss strategies and ideas to help people survive and, you never know, possibly even thrive in this new world order.

First things first. There is an old Persian saying, oft quoted, that I believe is very important at the moment. “This too shall pass”. Never has such a saying been more apt, or truer. The current situation we are in will change. It is already changing. And it will pass. We all have to remember that.

Many people will be constantly watching the news on TV and online waiting for the next horror to emerge from around the globe. This won’t be helping anyone’s mental health will it?

DG: At the moment if you are immersed in news reports and social media it can be very easy to think that we are going to be stuck in a never-ending loop of restrictions, fear, death and loss. Positive news stories can get lost in the doom and gloom. All forms of media have the power to provoke intense feelings in us. I am constantly hearing about the death toll. I do not think I have heard one news article of the recovery rate. It is not a secret that the media sensationalise stories for their owns ends – whatever they might be.

Here’s the first two strategies to support better mental health.

Remember… This too shall pass – nothing lasts forever and we are already seeing positive advances and changes

Avoid overdosing on the news – you don’t have to completely avoid it, but have measured doses. Perhaps keep to scheduled updates. If you are feeling sensitive or vulnerable at any given moment then take it off your schedule for a short while.

Many nations have brought in tough restrictions prohibiting movement and that will be adding to the pressure and the feelings of loneliness among many parts of the population. What can be done to combat those emotions?

DG: Pretty much every country is in some form of lockdown, and either mandated or voluntary precautions are in place such as social distancing and limitations on any outdoor activities. These are all designed to restrict the potential spread of this virus. These are in place for the safety of the worldwide community. But they can be tough. On everyone.

Consider self-isolation. Active dependency on drugs and alcohol is already a lonely place to be. Your world is already very small. Sometimes you may only see a few people during the week. Maybe long periods on your own. So usually when we step into any form of recovery there is a focus on broadening your world. On getting connected. We are encouraged to reach out for support, to develop our recoverybased support network. This might include mutual aid meetings, reconnecting with friends, rebuilding family relationships, or getting professional support. We replace the self-imposed loneliness of using with a network of positive people. In COVID-19 times this becomes a challenge.

Lucky for us that we live in the 21st Century. We actually have the tools to overcome this challenge. Most of us have internet connection, mobile phones, computers and the other technological trappings of these times. It’s much easier to stay in touch with people than ever before. It is important that we make as much use of technology as possible to keep nurturing our interpersonal relationships. We can use them to reach out for support if we are struggling, or to reach out to others if we know they are in need of some love and support.

There are even positives to this situation. Over the last weeks I have found myself talking to people with whom I have not spoken to for many months, or even years. Their universal shared experience of these times has meant that there was no awkwardness because of the gap in contact.

For those who usually attend meetings to help with their recovery, what are the best ways to continue with these during the pandemic and what about those who may wish to remain anonymous?

DG: If you attend mutual aid meetings as part of your recovery support, for example 12 Step meetings or SMART Recovery meetings, then you have a whole range of support available. Pretty much all such meetings are available online. Here in Zurich they have been using Zoom to hold meetings. The same guidelines are followed. You don’t have to have video – unless you want to use it. And you don’t have to speak – unless you want to. I’ve even been looking into different meeting worldwide such as Dharma Recovery. Some meetings have a WhatsApp group for its members. If your particular group does then make sure you are in it.

Is there one particular strategy that you think is absolutely vital for those struggling with dependency and recovery during this challenging period?

DG: I think one of the most important strategies to support recovery is to have a schedule, and to stick to it. I think this becomes even more important in lockdown. The decent schedule will ensure you take care of all your physical, emotional and spiritual needs. It will cut down on the sense of hopelessness and will help to counteract boredom, depression, stress and anxiety.

Work on your schedule. Design it to meet your needs and stick to it. When we work on and build a schedule, we are usually in a rationale frame of mind. We do not base it on impulsive decisions. I’ll give you a quick insight into how we build a schedule at the Kusnacht Practice.

Start by drawing up a Masterplan. Identify and list all the things that need to be in your schedule, and how many times you need to do them, and if there are any other specifics that need to be taken into account write them down. Your focus is wellbeing and balance. Wellbeing is a broad church. It is not restricted to yoga and psychotherapy. It also means having fun.

Building and sticking to a schedule might be the most single important intervention to support anyone in these times, and anyone, at any time, who is in a recovery process.

What are the best ways to structure your days and create routines?

DG: Here are a few tips to building a schedule:

Decide the format – will you use an online calendar, or a written version

Start with meals – put all the meal times in and allow for preparation etc

Have at least one physical activity every day – maybe live online classes?

Get outside once a day

There must be something fun on there

Meditation – get it on there if you already do it, try it every day if it is something new to you

Consider opportunities for personal development and education

Stick to your schedule – some flexibility is ok but maintain it as best you can and adapt it every week to meet your needs.

Even though COVID-19 presents us with many different challenges. It also provides us with opportunities to try new things and to do things a little differently. It does not mean that your recovery process must be put on hold. Or that you are alone. Take this chance to design your programme in a way that works for you and helps keep your focus on healthy choices, in all aspects of your life.

So, can we recap the best strategies for those with dependency issues and those in recovery on how to cope during the COVID-19 crisis?

DG: Here’s a summary of my suggestions so far:

Remember this too shall pass eventually

Limit your news and media intake, including some social media

Try to seek out positive news where possible

Stick to the well-publicised precautions for your own safety, and the safety of those around you

Use technology to stay connected

Maintain mutual aid meetings

Have some fun and try some new things

Establish and maintain a balanced and healthy structure.

Thank you very much Dean.

DG: Thank you. Stay safe and positive.