Mental Health, Mood and Emotion and Social Behaviour

Isolation stress can test those with addictions


Across Canada, people who face addiction and mental health issues are coming to terms with a new reality – an uncertain future with a period of physical distancing to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Over the last month, self-isolation safety measures have cancelled countless in-person Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, and have suspended face-to-face counselling. Psychologists have moved office meetings to virtual therapy sessions, and some homeless shelters have closed their doors in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“One of the things we might not always acknowledge about this new reality is that it’s tremendously stressful,” says Kasey Van Hedger, a BrainsCAN Postdoctoral Fellow at Western University studying substance use and substance use disorders. “There are two factors contributing to elevating stress levels across the board – one is unpredictability and the other is loss of control. We are all finding ourselves in a situation right now that is highly unpredictable and gives us very little control over our environments and our surroundings.”

Addictive disorders are brain diseases characterized by compulsive drug use, a loss of control over drug intake and a negative emotional state in the absence of drug or alcohol use.

For those overcoming addictions, environmental changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic limit coping options for dealing with elevated stress. Add in increased isolation from physical distancing and, for many, this can lead to relapse.

“In the short term, we’re likely to see increases in anxiety and depression because those with addictive disorders might not have access to their typical coping mechanisms – this on top of the added stress of daily life further heightens the risk of relapse,” says Van Hedger, a member of Western’s Brain and Mind Institute. “If not relapse, people in recovery might still be dealing with persistent negative emotional states. It’s an extremely precarious situation that we find ourselves in right now.” 

With in-person group sessions and individual counselling cancelled, those with addictive disorders are looking for other ways to maintain sobriety. In addition to helplines offered by provincial governments, Van Hedger suggests remaining socially connected.

“We as humans are an inherently social species. We require social interaction, social communication and social support – all experienced similarly to other rewards in the brain,” adds Van Hedger. “One way for people to connect to others for support is by being online; for instance, some AA meetings have been moved to virtual gatherings. Reach out to the people who are trained to help and the services that are available.”

While online meetings will benefit some, they’re not possible for everyone. For those who find themselves physically distancing without access to technology, Van Hedger suggests that there are other ways to help cope with stress and anxiety.

“In this time of self-isolation, we’re all trying to adjust to the new normal, so remember that you’re not alone. Reaching out is incredibly important. There’s value in seeing how you can still safely connect with the people who care about you. Creating a routine is also a good way of dealing with some of the uncertainty. A set schedule can help people take back some control over their environment.”

Most importantly, Van Hedger stresses to keep things simple, identify what works and focus on what can be done during these challenging circumstances. 

“Just take it one day at a time.” 

*   *   *

For more information on wellness support available at Western, visit
For information about online AA meetings, visit
For more information about online NA meetings in the London area, visit