Mental health experts are warning the extended lockdown could have a severe and immediate impact on those battling addictions to food, alcohol, drugs and smoking.
Addictions counsellor Leanne French says while lockdowns are an essential part of our current COVID response we cannot underestimate the impact they have on Kiwis battling addictions.
She says addiction catalysts often manifest in one of four ways; as emotional, social, pattern and/or withdrawal triggers.
New Google data shows New Zealand searches related to “addiction” spike in the weeks following lockdowns, with the search engine already projecting this week’s search volume on this term will more than double those of the previous week.
French says addictive behaviour is often triggered by a negative event that leads to anxiety or anger.
“Usually in times like lockdown, if we allow our anxiety or stress to rise by getting overwhelmed with information or demands or we fall into the trap of fearing what the future may hold, our emotional state triggers and increases addictive behaviours,” she says.
French says anyone with addictive tendencies would rather stuff, drown, ignore or suppress stressful experiences, rather than examining their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
“Addiction has a habit of hijacking impulse control and judgement. Usually people are looking for a reward or a way to cope. Even if what they reach for has negative health consequences.
“Seeing banana bread and muffins and any high fat, high sugar food being flaunted on social media, will have a similar reaction from food addicts that booze ads will have for an alcoholic,” she says.
French says the trick is to swap out the addictive thing you want to reach for by finding alternative sources that feel satisfying.
“These can be things like vaping instead of smoking. Drinking kombucha instead of wine or beer. Becoming more interested in healthy food alternatives. My go to mantra for anyone struggling during these times is: interrupt, intervene, replace.”
She says stress and boredom can also have us leaning into old habits for an instant fix.
“We have a need to want to feel better. Kindness in lockdown has to also extend to ourselves. We need to find new ways of either rewarding or distracting ourselves, that don’t harm us,” she says.
“People who are bored, down or lonely often have less fabulous coping strategies or creative options and outlets. It’s like a conditioned response when stimulus and distraction feels taken away from them. What they are left with is akin to an emptiness that they believe needs filling,” she says.
French says the brain’s response to addiction responds in similar ways – regardless of the source of the habit.
A new nationwide Shosha study of over 3,600 past and current smokers shows emotional responses to their environment are common triggers.
The research found 84% of Kiwi smokers say specific emotions that make them want to smoke include: stress, anxiety, feeling down, boredom or loneliness.
French says these emotional changes would be common under an extended lockdown period as many Kiwis face sources of stress in their home environment.
Nabhik Gupta, spokesperson for Shosha, NZ’s largest retailer of e-cigarettes, says smokers will face an additional barrier with the introduction of new laws last week.
“We know many Kiwis using vaping products as part of their smoking cessation efforts.
“New laws introduced last week have restricted access of a wide range of these products to specialty vape retailers – however under lockdown restrictions, these stores cannot open.
“What this means is that smokers can currently access cigarettes and alcohol more easily than vaping products,” he says.
Government guidelines indicate vapes provide a useful tool in helping those addicted to smoking to quit and expert opinion is that vaping products are much less harmful than smoking tobacco but not completely harmless.