Content reviewed by Khelsea Walker, Chief Executive Officer at New Hope Ranch

There is no denying that we are living in unprecedented times. With the continuation of COVID-19, government policies are constantly changing and more tragedies are occurring across the nation. That’s why it is more important now than ever to make known healthy ways to cope with collective stress.

Without awareness of healthy coping mechanisms, many people are at an increased risk of turning to alcohol and other drugs as a way to self-medicate. Self-medicating practices only exacerbate mental health problems, though many people view it as a legitimate way to manage stress and experience relief from difficult situations or emotions. To reduce the risks of developing chemical dependency and addiction, it is essential to highlight strategies individuals can use to cope with present stress.

The Effects of Collective Stress on Substance Use Disorder

Simply put, stress is a normal human response to encountering difficulty in life. Stress is most often experienced as both a physical and emotional reaction. When we face challenges in life, our bodies activate our “fight-or-flight” mode. The activation of this mode increases our heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure and tightens up our muscles. In other words, fight-or-flight mode releases hormones in our body that prompt us to either stay and confront the challenge or to get away from it.

While the occasional activation of this stress response is normal, chronic or long-term activation can contribute to worsening mental and physical health problems. Unfortunately, individuals across the globe are experiencing an overactivation of the fight-or-flight response as a result of collective stress.

Another outcome of collective stress is the increased prevalence of substance use, as well as the development of substance use disorder (SUD). As a result of unmanageable, depressive and anxious symptoms, many people turn to alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to self-medicate their distress. However, self-medicating only provides temporary relief and solely masks the problem. In a matter of time, substance use will worsen already-unmanageable symptoms and lead to chemical dependency.

The pandemic in and of itself was enough to cause the overactivation of this stress response in hundreds of thousands of people, especially when you add in personal challenges that may have resulted because of it. In addition to increased substance use, several challenges include forced isolation, job loss, online learning and other socio-economic implications. Even with the pandemic slowing down, these implications continue to linger and interfere with individuals’ physical, mental and emotional health in challenging ways.

When Stress or Anxiety Is Abnormal

A certain level of stress is normal; it’s how you learn, grow and adapt. However, current events have caused individuals to acknowledge their present stress levels as normal, even when the symptoms of their stress may be overwhelming or debilitating. Leaving stress untreated can lead to worsening health problems.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) created a flowchart to help individuals recognize when they should seek help for their stress and anxiety. First, determine whether you’re experiencing stress, anxiety or both.

Where stress is an external reaction to external stimuli, anxiety is an internal disruption that doesn’t go away once a challenge or difficulty is no longer present. It is possible to experience both at once. Individuals can do things to manage both stress and anxiety through things like journaling, exercise and sticking to a regular sleep schedule. If these things don’t alleviate symptoms and stress or anxiety has become unmanageable, it may be time to seek professional intervention.

How to Navigate Collective Stress While in Addiction Recovery

Regardless of whether one is currently struggling with stress, stressful experiences are inevitable in life. It is vital to bring awareness to both healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms for navigating both personal and collective stress.

Unhealthy Ways to Manage Stress

There are numerous ways that one may handle stress without knowing that their chosen coping mechanism is unhealthy. Conversely, they may recognize that their coping mechanism is unhealthy, yet it provides the temporary relief that they are looking for. Since there are effective coping mechanisms available, no one should settle for unhealthy behaviors. These may include:

#1. Substance Use

Unfortunately, it is normal for individuals to turn to alcohol and other substances as a way to self-medicate feelings of stress and anxiety. Some people may misuse prescription medications or illegal substances in an attempt to cope. Substance use of any kind interferes with healthy brain function and can exacerbate already-present mental health problems. Avoid using alcohol and other drugs as an escape.

#2. Consumption of Media

Another unhealthy way to manage stress is by turning to the news or media. As news outlets are available 24/7, there is a constant flow of information about current tragedies or ongoing issues. While it is important to be informed, constantly consuming media can contribute to worsening collective stress. Reducing the amount of time one spends listening to or watching the media can help manage stress.

Healthy Ways to Manage Stress

There are many things one can do to take care of oneself and manage stress as it occurs in one’s life. Here are a few examples:

#1. Engage in physical activity.

Exercise can help regulate the body’s fight-or-flight response. Try to engage in moderate physical activity several times throughout the week to manage stress.

#2. Meditate.

Meditation is a mindfulness practice that encourages deep awareness of the present moment. Set aside a few minutes every day to focus solely on your breath.

#3. Connect with others.

Social support protects against substance use and acts as a stress reduction technique. Talk often with people that you trust about your emotions and concerns.

#4. Search for purpose.

It can be helpful to search for deeper meaning and purpose in your life, especially when you are actively struggling.

#5. Consider professional support.

Treatment is always available for those struggling with intense mental health symptoms and/or substance use. Consider receiving professional treatment if you have trouble coping with stress.

New Hope Ranch is a male-only addiction treatment center that recognizes the intense impact that collective stress can have on overall health and well-being. We offer a range of services that help men heal from the devastating consequences of substance use and co-occurring mental health problems. We believe that social support plays an essential role in protecting individuals from the complications of collective stress, which is why we incorporate daily support groups into our treatment program. To learn more about our treatment facility, give us a call today at (737) 600-8565.