There’s no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has forever altered life as we know it. And every aspect of our lives, from social connections to healthcare and beyond, has been affected. For instance, along with making a significant economic and public health impact, COVID-19 has spawned a mental health crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Across the U.S., more of us are stressed than ever before. The annual Stress in America survey found that 67% of U.S. adults “have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic.” Yet it’s young people, especially Generation Z, who are the most vulnerable to the persistent stress and trauma caused by the pandemic.
Unfortunately, young people are increasingly turning to illicit substances to counter the effects of pandemic-related stress. Research indicates that the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 can lead to substance abuse, and overdose deaths are on the rise nationwide. The 2020 holiday season, coupled with social distancing mandates and continued isolation, has only served to compound the issue.
Stress and Substance Abuse: The Cyclical Effect
Despite the inherent links between stress and COVID, it’s important to remember that stress isn’t always a fleeting emotion or seasonal condition: stress is a common symptom of various mental health conditions, from childhood trauma to anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). And the unfortunate reality is LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience negative mental health conditions than their cisgender peers, at a rate of more than two-to-one.
To relieve the pain brought on by stress, whether caused by a temporary event like COVID or an underlying mental health condition, people seek relief by any means necessary. For some, help comes in the form of counseling, talk therapy, or meditation; other young people take a less traditional (and more dangerous) route, in the form of mind-altering substances. Stress and addiction oftentimes go hand in hand — fueling each other in a dangerous cycle.
Within the LGBTQ community, evidence of the stress/addiction cycle is rampant. For starters, substance misuse and substance use disorders (SUDs) are much more common among sexual minorities than those who identify as heterosexual. In a 2018 study, sexual minority adults 18 and older reported higher use of marijuana, alcohol, and opioids than the overall adult population.
Knowing the Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety
But what emotions or feelings are those who misuse illicit substances trying to suppress? In terms of stress, you may have noticed certain behavior patterns in yourself and/or loved ones, and they’re usually not pretty. Negative behaviors related to stress may include unexpected mood swings and frequent angry outbursts, as well as physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, and chest pain.
Yet there are other, less obvious symptoms of stress that you should look out for. Stress can also cause problems with your ability to listen and effectively communicate. In stressful conditions, you may find yourself excessively thirsty, or that your motor functions are impaired. Shaky hands, overthinking, and the tendency to hesitate can make you a danger behind the wheel when you’re stressed out.
But no matter if your stress is rooted in temporary conditions like COVID or a serious mental health disorder, it doesn’t have to rule your life.
How to Safely Manage Underlying Conditions
We all respond to stress in different ways. As such, effective treatment methods can vary significantly between individuals and individual mental health conditions. If you’re experiencing prolonged bouts of depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible, and avoid the trap of self-medication, which is frequently a precursor to full-blown addiction.
And in regards to symptom relief, keep in mind that the timetable may also be extremely varied, especially in cases of deep-rooted trauma or abuse. Horrific events such as child abuse are likely to have long-term effects on one’s mental and physical health, potentially triggering substance abuse and other forms of risky behavior. Indeed, childhood trauma can impact individual behavior and emotion regulation well into adulthood.
Swapping out negative behaviors, from sexual risk-taking to drug and alcohol dependency, in favor of positive coping skills, may thus be an uphill battle for victims of childhood trauma, as well as those living with a mental health disorder. Patience is a key element of overcoming stress and addiction and should be used mindfully, in conjunction with proven treatment methods such as counseling and substance abuse support groups.
There’s no denying that the winter months are a major source of stress, especially when it comes to the holidays. Yet, as we face an uncertain future wherein a global pandemic continues to send our daily lives, your holiday-related stresses may not be finite, or easy to overcome. If you find yourself overwhelmed by stress, whatever its source, avoid the temptation of alcohol and drugs, and don’t be afraid to reach out to your community for support and guidance.