Relying on substances a little too much during the pandemic? Here's what to do.


We're happy to provide a guest post today from one of our very own Amira Health counselling practicum interns, Crystal! 

COVID-19 continues to keep most of us separated from important family, friends, caregivers, mentors, and co-workers who usually help us cope with life’s challenges and maintain our mental health. As we continue to deal with unfamiliar situations and unprecedented stressors, we’ve had to seek out alternative ways to adapt or respond to pandemic-related stress, isolation, and uncertainty.

It’s no secret that the use of mind-altering substances such as alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco has gone up dramatically in the past year as we continue to do our best to cope. While increased substance use may provide some short-term relief from stress or loneliness, it is not a healthy habit and usually does more harm than good in the long run.

If you’ve noticed increased substance use in yourself or those around you during the pandemic, number one, you’re not alone, and number two, now may be a good time to explore the underlying reasons why. As we very slowly start to see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, now is a great opportunity to start developing healthier and more sustainable coping mechanisms and daily habits.

Let’s start with curious, non-judgmental awareness

To gain insight into our substance use, we can first bring mindful, curious attention to our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Looking back over the past couple of weeks, reflect on your alcohol, drug, and/or tobacco consumption - and instead of feeling guilty or self-criticizing, ask yourself some of the following questions and take note of any patterns that might emerge:

  • When did my use start to increase and what else was going around that time?

  • How have I historically coped with negative feelings like worry, sadness, or loneliness, and how has that changed during the pandemic?

  • Where am I when I drink, smoke or use?

  • Who is usually with me when I drink, smoke or use?

  • Which days of the week do I tend to use the most and why?

  • What times of the day do I tend to use the most and why?

  • What am I usually doing/thinking/feeling before I use?

  • What am I usually doing/thinking/feeling after I use?

  • What other things do I tend to do while I use (e.g. binge-watching Netflix, doom-scrolling social media)?

  • What were my teachings about substance use growing up?

  • When do I feel most in control of my substance use?

  • What healthy practices do I engage in (e.g. movement, mindfulness)?

Next, take small steps toward change

Now that you’ve learned a little more about yourself and your relationship with substances through self-reflection, you can start to develop some goals to moderate your use if you feel like there are some changes you want to make. Making SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time bound) leads to better outcomes and greater success. For example, a SMART goal surrounding substance use would be to decrease the number of drinks you have per day by one for a period of two weeks, or to increase the time between cigarettes by 15 minutes for the next week. After accomplishing your initial goal, you can change them up and gradually work your way towards a bigger goal such as stopping all together if that is something you want to do.

Adopt healthier alternatives as habits

It’s common to experience substance cravings, and/or feelings of anxiety, sadness, or loneliness whenever we’re transitioning our substance-reliant coping strategies to healthier ones. For example, if you notice you tend to drink more after you turn off you work computer at the end of the day because you feel lonely, maybe you decide to meet up with either a “bubble friend” or someone you can safely physically distance from for a walk outside instead. Another option might to be arrange ahead of time a phone call with a friend or family member. You might find that even just interrupting your substance use patterns is enough to increase your connection to others and reduce your intake.

Here are some other low-cost alternatives to substance use:

  • Reading a book
  • Cooking or baking
  • Cleaning or organizing a room in your home
  • Listening to music
  • Developing a comforting hobby like photography or gardening
  • Drawing or painting
  • Doing a jigsaw puzzle
  • Going hiking in nature
  • Going for a bike ride
  • Writing or journaling
  • Doing a craft
  • Doing a virtual workout at home through an app or free online service
  • Playing or cuddling with a pet
  • Learning a new language
  • Taking a warm bath or hot shower
  • Engaging in a guided meditation (there are many freely available online or in apps)

Lastly, don’t hesitate to reach out for support

It is really important to remember that exploring or changing your relationship with substances can be challenging at times and that you don’t have to do it alone. Although it is not yet safe to meet in-person indoors, most peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART recovery still meet virtually and many counsellors are currently offering online sessions. If you think you could use some additional help and support for your substance use, you can find more information about Amira Health’s counselling services here.