‘Cronked’ in the time of corona: substance use during COVID-19 pandemic

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, I’ve noticed that my trips to the liquor store have become more frequent in the past two years.

Photo: iStockphoto.com (Ivan Balvan).

After 12 hours of juggling Zoom meetings, assignments, and emails — all while living with family members who have no boundaries — having three or four glasses of wine every night had become part of my evening routine.

I’m not alone in having this experience over the past 24 months. According to the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA), one in three Canadians reported an increase in alcohol use, while two out of five people reported that they consumed more cannabis during the pandemic.

Even more alarming, the early months of the pandemic saw an 18 per cent spike in opioid-related deaths in the United States when compared to the same months in 2019.

What’s driving this phenomenon? The CCSA reported that the top three stressors for Canadians were their financial situation, social isolation and the health of family members. While most of us have experienced some form of these stressors even before the pandemic, their impact is amplified as we navigate through the “new normal.” 

Dr. James Murphy (PhD) is a psychology professor at the University of Memphis who studies addictive and health risk behaviours. In a recent paper published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, Murphy and his colleagues described the pandemic and the subsequent public health response as the creation of a “perfect storm” that can increase substance use and worsen substance use problems. 

With restrictions and social distancing in place, many effective constraints to substance use — such as physically being at work or at school, or fulfilling community obligations — were suspended. The increased uncertainty in our lives and the world was also likely to discourage us from delaying such rewards. In effect, the pandemic strained our ability to do the valuable, substance-free activities that stimulate our brains.

However, substance use and abuse are not only driven by social factors and the physiological effects associated with it — such as stress alleviation. Our brains play a major role in reinforcing use that may result in dependence. Interactions with substances cause certain stimulating experiences, satisfying our craving for rewards and pleasure. As a result, substance use activates certain pathways in the brain that reinforce certain behaviours. 

One example of a pathway in the brain that researchers speculate as the reason behind the emergence of substance dependency is the mesolimbic dopamine pathway. This pathway involves the midbrain and dopamine — a neurotransmitter that’s largely associated with how we feel pleasure (neurotransmitters are molecules that transmit messages to nerve cells). The midbrain can be thought of as an “information superhighway” where there’s a high concentration of information travelling to different parts of the brain through these neurotransmitters.

As we consume more and more substances, this pathway becomes highly active. In turn, it “tricks” the brain into thinking that these substances and the induced stimuli are biologically needed. The more you repeat it, the stronger the association becomes — motivating us to keep the routine going.

Because of the neurological reward associated with substance use, some scientists have recognized that it’s natural for human beings to consume alcohol and psychoactive substances as much as it is natural for us to eat and seek social interactions.

Dr. Carl Hart (PhD) is a psychologist and associate professor from Columbia University who studies the effect of drugs on human physiology and behaviour. He's one of many advocating for scientifically accurate education about drug use, and he speaks out against the myths of drug use, dependence and addiction. 

Through his research, Hart found that addiction can be addressed by learning the skills needed for tempering behaviour when taking drugs because it requires a person to be responsible. He compared it to driving a vehicle — you must be responsible while driving to avoid hurting yourself or others. Otherwise, the chances of developing an addiction increase.

In an interview with Skeptic (a magazine published by the Skeptics Society), Hart warns the public about the negative portrayal of drug use caused by the fact that most researchers and the media are biased toward highlighting its bad effects.

Alexyz Preagola
Alexyz Preagola

His approach is to educate the public about the benefits of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs when used in a responsible way and to think critically about the goals of the different sectors involved in this issue.

We all know how the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our lives around, for better or for worse. As a result, increased alcohol and drug use can offer a way to cope with the changes and uncertainty we’ve been experiencing. Seeking and advocating for evidence-based education — rather than anecdotal accounts — about the use of these substances can improve users’ lives and, in the process, reduce their harmful effects.

If you’ve become dependent on addictive substances during the pandemic, it’s important not to blame yourself or not let yourself be defined by the stigma surrounding drug use. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please call Saskatchewan’s 811 HealthLine (1-877-800-0002) that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also check out this site for a list of mental health and addiction services offered in the province.

Alexyz Preagola of Saskatoon, Sask., is a master’s student studying animal behaviour and aquatic ecology in the College of Arts and Science’s Department of Biology at the University of Saskatchewan.

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